Published by Lee Boudreaux Books
Publication date: February 16th 2016
There are few things more exhilarating or frightening than college. Old enough to know there is more out there but young enough to have no idea what it is. Into this world comes eighteen-year-old Catherine who has, amazingly, managed to convince her conservative parents that she should live at school in Dublin rather than commute from home. Quiet and shy she is soon swept off her feet by the most unlikely of new friends, an older boy named James who is everything she is not. He is not in school but is pursuing photography and is geeky, funny, and affectionate. He becomes her conduit to the world—taking her into situations she would never venture into on her own and saying out loud what she only thinks and feels. Thanks to author Belinda McKeon in her new novel Tender we become privy to the vast and varied rhythms of their friendship.
Set in the late 1990s, Ireland is still a deeply religious country, so when James reveals to Catherine that he is gay it adds another element to Tender. The unique intimacy they share
Already they had their own way of talking, their private phrases, their language…
is freed from the tension that sex puts between members of the opposite sex. They are still able to move in the intense, almost shivery, atmosphere of bonding, but without any of the fear a romantic relationship engenders. This is only true in their world at school. Everywhere else James has to negotiate through the reactions of his family, friends, and the environment outside university, with Catherine, as his dearest friend, assuming a protective role. Only with Catherine can he be himself, until he starts inhabiting his own skin and then what was so close goes terribly wrong and there’s no going back.
Despite how much of Tender feels tender McKeon is not content with easy to define characters. By the time the novel ends, it’s difficult to sum up either James or Catherine and this is why the story lingers. Through McKeon’s prose she evokes the emotions stirred up by college—the ending of the teenage years and the beginning of adulthood; the uncomfortable dance of dating, sexuality and trying to decide who and what you’re supposed to be. There is no huge action in Tender just a small story with implications that, while they don’t change the course of the world, permanently alter a relationship. The kind of mistakes the heart makes when the mind knows better.