Invitation to the Blues: Review, Excerpt, Giveaway
INVITATION TO THE BLUES
I learned that being good at something—deeply, passionately good—was more satisfying than having fun, or being liked, or being happy. That the pursuit of perfection made you a world unto yourself. And when you were a world unto yourself, you didn’t need the things other people needed. Food or sleep or friends. Love.
My summary: After Jude Lucen tries to kill himself, he exchanges Boston for Philadelphia, where he’s surrounded by well-meaning family that doesn’t quite understand him. Still struggling with depression, he finds his classical music career in stalemate as he recovers from an abusive ex and all the trauma that he left behind. At a friend’s tattoo shop, he meets Faron, an artist who naturally anchors Jude to reality.
Last November, during an initial psychological assessment, I told my new therapist that I had a history of dysthymia. But I’d dealt with that years ago in a different therapist’s office; I wasn’t depressed anymore. Later, she said something like, “...as someone who has depression, such as yourself…” and I was all, wait, no, back up, I don’t have depression, I used to have it.
Which is how I learned that depression isn’t something you cure; it’s something you manage. I’m better at managing it; I still have it. Well.
Keeping this in mind, it’s easier to see why writing about mental illness is hard. What is the arc? There is no cure, so what does a resolution look like? Deciding not to die isn't enough when the human mind is always in flux. How can there be progress that feels both realistic and meaningful? This isn’t just a storytelling question.
Jude's experience is so eerily close to my own that the words on the page felt like digging deeper into my own brain instead of stepping out of it. Roan Parrish writes romance the way I want to: vast, inclusive, tender narratives about flawed and troubled people creating happiness together. I’ve also read The Remaking of Corbin Wale and In the Middle of Somewhere, and both were so deeply special and touching to me that I couldn’t review them. Her books include so many random parts of me, from Judaism to Philly to a love for Donna Tartt. Writers often say they became writers because they didn’t see the books they wanted in the world. Roan Parrish writes books almost precisely as I would write them. It is lovely and a little disconcerting.
I didn’t categorize this book as m/m because m/m, to me, implies straight women sexualizing slightly unrealistic men. Invitation to the Blues isn’t exploitative in its depictions of intimacy. Jude and Faron’s physical interactions are real and honest. The book includes: straightforward conversations about the effects of antidepressants on the body; hair braiding; hand holding that Jude says, “didn’t feel like holding hands; it felt like he was keeping a part of me safe.” There’s a broken piano that needs mending, a community tattoo shop, a dog.
The writing is just as whimsical and touching as the characters and story. In November I read John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, and although I don’t have OCD, as his protagonist does, stepping into her brain gave me a magnifying glass with which to examine my own brain. I got a therapist because I read Turtles All the Way Down. That sounds silly, like maybe I’m exaggerating, but it’s true; I had had panic attacks for months, where I found myself struggling to breathe in weird parks at midnight, but John Green’s book was what made me seek help.
I think true-to-life books about mental illness are both rare and tremendously important. I love romances about lovable and attractive characters, but to me the point of this genre is offering the possibility of happiness to every sort of person. Invitation to the Blues is for anxiety and depression what Turtles All the Way Down is to OCD. That it’s a romance makes it, for me, even more important.
The stuff below includes spoilers.
And what does love look like when you’re depressed and anxious? Depressed people make bad partners; I speak from experience. They’re selfish by necessity; lethargic; consistently unpleasant and sporadically very unpleasant.
In Jude’s case, he can’t bring himself to make decisions about his career; he can’t pick out a suitable gift for his mother on her birthday; he can’t answer the phone or door when loved ones come calling. He has trouble eating; he’s likely to rush out of concerts and parties at inappropriate moments.
Roan Parrish's answer is: Be loved for your battle. Not for who you are when you're depressed, or who you are when you're not depressed. Find someone who loves your brain chemistry and struggling nature.
Faron isn't impenetrable to the ways Jude's depression affects everyone else. Faron foresees potential trouble; he just doesn't see it as a reason to run from the relationship. He loves Jude neither despite of nor because of his mental illness. He just loves Jude. I don't know if that kind of love is possible, honestly, but I liked reading about it.
I also liked reading the parts that I definitely know are possible. There’s a scene where Jude experiences dissociation, and the prose switches from first person to third.
Faron looked sad and desperate and I felt nothing because I was shrunk down to the size of a marble, rattling around inside this hollow meat suit, and you’ll never find me. [...]
I closed Jude’s eyes.
“Why?” Jude said.
The four word sentence I closed Jude’s eyes brought me to tears. When I was a teenager I wrote a lot about characters who experienced dissociation, which was something I once struggled with but had never seen in stories. I always switched from first to third person; my prose always got wonky. In this case, Jude goes from a standard first person to addressing an unknown “you,” creating a small distance; the distance widens as his mind dissociates from his body, when his “I” closes “Jude’s” eyes. Then finally he settles into third person. He’s gone. The chapter ends shortly after. I cried.
I also loved the role of his abusive ex. His ex is not abusive in obvious ways. Jude doesn’t limp away with bruises and a restraining order. In fact, Kaspar saved Jude’s life, and Jude left him in an abrupt way that was neither mature nor kind. Kaspar’s abuse is verbal and emotional, not screaming or cursing so much as subtle, backhanded compliments, backstabbing gossip, and general emotional neglect. It can be hard to leave that kind of invisible, nasty net, and it’s so easy to feel endlessly indebted when you know you have partly wronged someone and they did not wholly wrong you. Regardless, Jude’s pain is real, and while Kaspar is not necessarily evil, he is abusive. Again—this experience felt so close to reality, and the entire arc made me cry.
Is this review making any sense? I’ve never reviewed Roan Parrish’s books before because they’re too good for me to articulate. It scares me that I never would have picked up her work before last year, when I finally started reading self-published and small press books. Her books feel plucked from my own soul. I want her to make millions of dollars.
My problem with Faron was that he was stunning.
He was tall and taut, with broad shoulders and an elegant neck. His tawny brown skin was flawless and he had dreamy, gray-brown eyes that always seemed to focus on something in a plane beyond this one. His riot of corkscrew curls was sometimes loose, but today was caught up in a topknot. It had been bleached nearly white when I first met him and was now growing out. His cheekbones were high and broad, casting shadows that made him look like he was candlelit from every angle. His mouth was lush and full, and his rare smiles turned his chiseled beauty to a warmth so engaging that you didn’t ever want him to look away from you.
His beauty was a problem because it made me want him and I hated wanting anything. Desire was the beginning of disappointment.
It wasn’t just his looks, though. I could’ve handled that. I’d known a lot of beautiful people.
No, it was everything.
He was graceful and forceful at the same time. His focus was intense, whether it was on the things that only he saw or on whoever he was listening to. And he made me feel calm—as if he held the whole world in his hands and slowed it down or sped it up to whatever speed I was going.
It was intoxicating: a promise of peace as long as I was in his presence.
And hope was even worse than desire.