NancyKay Shapiro in her debut novel, What Love Means to You People, deals with some truly galvanizing issues - small town bigotry, gay parenting, and the price one can ultimately pay for following one's deepest and darkest desires.
Shy, reserved Jim Glaser is forty-two, a wealthy, cultured and educated Manhattanite.
He has spent the last couple of years lamenting the accidental death of Zak, his one true love. Perhaps this is why he
is initially wary of courting the groovily tattooed 23-year-old artist Seth McKenna, who brazenly flirts with him at a photographer's studio in the East village.
Seth eventually seduces Jim with a quote from Middlemarch. The courtship is intense, composed of romantic candlelit dinners, café luncheons and leisurely walks through Chelsea art galleries. Yet their attraction to each other is tempered by very real hesitations over age and economic disparities, and both are hesitant to jump into the sack to assuage their emotions with the physical.
Finally caught up in the heat of the moment, Jim and Seth are swamped by
their reciprocal passions. The two men remain tormented by an intense physical longing; the sex, when it finally happens, is raw, earthy, fervent and almost brutal. Seth tells Jim that he is really "hot and gentle at the same time." He sees himself as not the kind of serious boyfriend Jim would even want, because "he's merely a kid with a ring through his nose." But Jim sees Seth's "neat potent muscles, the tattoos and the piercings," as totally hot.
Seth begins to challenge Jim to turn away from nurturing the memory of his one great love, to "throw himself open again in places that are still raw."
Jim offers Seth the possibility of lifelong financial security; he sees them as "partners in life," but Seth continues to hold him at arm's length, intent on maintaining a sort of lonely self-reliance. Seth also hides a terrible secret: he
has fooled his older lover into thinking that his parents were English lit professors in Lincoln, Nebraska, with a big Victorian house full of books and lots of friends, and that they accidentally died in a house fire. In reality, he came to New York from Drinkwater, Nebraska, on a scholarship, fleeing
a life of physical and sexual abuse from Roy, his homophobic and deeply closeted stepfather. He left his younger sister Cassie behind to shoulder the burden of Roy's violent rampages against their mother.
Cassie continues to eke out a living in the rundown family gas station café, trapped in the small town, finding comfort in the pages of classic literature and fantasizing over characters from the novels of Collette. The reading transports her but does not finally remove her far from this place of secret sufferers and imbibers of imagined lives. While Cassie plans to journey to New York to reconnect with her brother, Seth moves into Jim's expensive loft, seduced by Jim's goodness – "of scented bathwater, abundant and delicious food, and of silky shaving cream smelling of lavender," and where pillow talk is a minefield of sudden sex, "where thirsts arose to be quenched, and bodies existed to be tenderly mauled."
As these three characters converge, Shapiro beautifully traces the arc of their relationships with each other. Jim and Seth have fallen in love, but their love is threatened to be torn asunder by Seth's unwitting deceptions and by Cassie's precipitous arrival in New York. Jim's world has been one of sexual abundance, easygoing and "free of scorekeeping."
His attitude makes Seth feel like a child fabulously indulged. Seth, however, is plagued by his violent and abusive past, where every pleasure is a secret rooted in filth. Jim turns out to be his "big, low Robert Mitchum-man, " his newly reinvented object of affection and attention.
Jim, Seth and Cassie are enormously appealing characters, and each in their own way struggles to survive their forced separations. The problem, however, is that they have dangerously preconceived assumptions about each other's lives. Cassie's small town bigotry threatens to alienate her from her older brother. She
is appalled at her brother's lifestyle where he does "dirty" things with Jim, and she is ultimately forced to confront some of her most basic prejudices.
For his part, Jim - who loves babies and desperately wants a family with children - opens his life and his heart to both Seth and Cassie but later feels betrayed by their deceptions and lack of honesty. Seth and Cassie are, after all, the victims of a place and environment that has shamed them, and they can't avoid this reality no matter how they try. Shapiro steadily unwraps her characters, exposing their deepest desires and insecurities. The space left by many of their collapsed assumptions of one another is often sadness and curiosity and fear.
What Love Means to you People is a hip contemporary drama of love and sex, and also of families who must learn how to cope in the modern world where traditional values are perhaps not as relevant as the once were. Shapiro's writing is indeed spectacular, and in the process she makes some trenchant observations on the complexities of human relationships. With a decisive and empathetic eye, the author manages, without judgment, to juxtapose the perils of small-town life with big-city cosmopolitanism, showing how lives can be absolutely shattered by half-hidden truths and furtive, unacknowledged desires.