[Book Review] Tender by Belinda McKeon

When they meet in Dublin in the late nineties, Catherine and James become close as two friends can be. She is a sheltered college student, he an adventurous, charismatic young artist. In a city brimming with possibilities, he spurs her to take life on with gusto. But as Catherine opens herself to new experiences, James’s life becomes a prison; as changed as the new Ireland may be, it is still not a place in which he feels able to truly be himself. 

Lil Bean and a copy of Tender

Tender is set in Ireland and written with a dialect. There are several words and phrases in the novel that may be hard to understand if you aren’t familiar with Irish lingo, but the dialect isn’t anywhere near as bad as the Scottish dialect in Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. Rather, in this novel, the dialect works to remind you of the Irish setting without overwhelming you with culture-specific lingo.

Catherine is set to go away to college and pursue an art and English education, and she moves into a flat with two other women. The room she’s taking has recently been vacated by a man named James. Catherine gets to know James, and she begins to develop feelings for him, feelings that she denies continuously throughout the novel. James invites Catherine over to his parent’s house, and while there, he tells her a secret. At first, Catherine thinks that he is going to kiss her or ask her out, and she tells herself that would not do at all, that she is not into James that way. Instead, James confesses that he is gay. The rest of the novel consists of Catherine grappling with his confession and navigating how to behave appropriately when your best friend (whom everyone thinks you’re dating) turns out to be gay.

It’s a heartfelt novel even though Catherine is rather dense as a character. She’s obtuse in many ways and often has to be told point-blank what is happening since she has such a hard time picking up on social cues. She also seems to have social anxiety, as she is desperate to be liked and well-received by those around her at all times. She often sacrifices her own happiness in the hopes of pleasing someone else, but because she has such trouble reading other people, she often winds up making things worse. Essentially, she means well, but she’s a bit of a social klutz.

This isn’t a bad thing, and the novel is fairly intriguing, even though there is never much happening in the novel. The pacing is reminiscent of the classic Victorian romance novels–Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, etc.–yet there’s something about the novel that made me unable to abandon it. I kept reading, obsessed, eager to see how James and Catherine’s relationship would progress, and where they would end up, despite the slow build.

Intriguing, important, and compellingly written, Tender is an underdog of a novel that risks being overlooked by the mainstream. However, I am glad that I stumbled upon it and gave it the attention it deserves.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

PUBLICATION DEETS: Lee Boudreaux Books, June 1, 2015, 416 pages

CATEGORY: Literary fiction, Bildungsroman, LGBTQ+ fiction

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