The Way Back by Carter Quinn
Title: The Way Back
Author: Carter Quinn
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press © June 2012
Rating: B List
In The Way Back Riley Evans has a big heart, but one he guards carefully. In his freshman year of college, Riley met the Walker brothers, Eric and Jason, and they trio became fast friends. Much like The Three Amigos, there was very little they didn’t know about each other, including the fact that Riley was hopelessly in love with Eric. Eric was dynamic, brash, with the confidence of a jock and the list of girlfriends to prove it. Jason, the stoic older brother, was the solid one, quiet and loyal to a fault, even if it meant putting someone else’s happiness before his own. With Riley, they balanced each other out. Jason was the quiet gay one, Riley, the romantic with big dreams, and Eric, a whirlwind and very straight.
Or so they all thought.
Until one night in their Junior year, Eric planted a kiss on Riley that changed all their lives. Riley saw his dreams coming true while the brothers grappled with their own reasons to be uncertain about the change in their relationship. Eric wasn’t gay. He wasn’t. But he couldn’t stop himself from being with Riley, couldn’t hold back his urges. Jason voiced his concerns when Riley and Eric began a tumultuous affair but otherwise tried to stay out of it until Eric inevitably panicked, dropping out of school and running off to get married, leaving Jason to pick up the pieces of a very shattered Riley until graduation sent them on their separate paths.
Six years later, Riley hadn’t had a serious relationship. Any time someone got close, he’d flee. He walled off his heart and his trust, and in the back of his mind, acknowledged that while he knew Eric wasn’t coming back to him, he couldn’t help wanting that very thing. A run-in with Jason at the local hardware store six years after the explosion surprised him, as did Jason’s subtle overtures to rekindle not only their friendship but perhaps let it grow into something more. The comfort between the old friends eased Riley into his first real relationship since Eric devastated him, and before Riley knew it, he had his first boyfriend in a long time. Things were moving along pleasantly, until Eric called, voicing his desire to get Riley back.
Already determined not to let Eric smash his heart again, Riley decided not to meet with him, to concentrate on his relationship with the brother who hadn’t hurt him so deeply. To his astonishment, Jason urged him to see Eric, find out if that spark, once so bright, had totally disappeared. Jason didn’t want to lose Riley, but he had to find out if Riley was ever really his to begin with, or if the ghost of Eric would always hang over them.
What ensues is an emotional roller-coaster filled with laughter, an old friendship coming to life, a deep look into the motivations of the heart, and jealousy so deep that someone is bound to get hurt. Convinced that Eric had been the love of his life, Riley agrees to Jason’s reasoning to see the wayward brother and answer his six-year-old question: did Eric ever really love him, and if so, did they deserve another chance?
Well written and realistic, this story touches on how one man’s past paves the way for his future, and how much what happened between Riley and Eric left its footprint on Riley’s ability to love again. Are they meant to be? Or did Eric hurt Riley beyond repair? Did Jason ever stand a chance or would he always remain in the shadow of Riley’s One that Got Away? With Eric’s acknowledgement of his mistakes, Riley can’t help but come to respect the man his friend and once-lover has become, but is it enough for him to walk away from Jason, the first man Riley’s been able to care for since Eric?
These relationships had me both cheering for and facepalming at the antics of all three men as Quinn takes us on a trip through a painful though nostalgic past, an uncertain future, and a rocky present that is enough to make even the biggest romantic consider how much risk the heart can take. Each character was well drawn, their motivations believable, and poor Riley’s confusion is palpable on every page. When an explosive argument shows Riley just how little control he had over what happened, both in college and since Eric’s return, I wanted to hug and pet him, and glare fiercely at both brothers for their bullheadedness, and maybe knock their heads together for good measure.
This story was also extremely nostalgic for me because it’s set in Lawrence, Kansas, home of the University of Kansas, where I attended classes before following my own uncertain future and heart. The setting had little effect on the story, but it was fun to read about Massachusetts Street, Free State Brewery, Paisanos, and so many other locations that played a role in my first two years of growing independence from under my parents’ wing. Finding oneself in college is one of the beauties of the adventure, and this story tells in rich detail how three men did just that, made connections and broke hearts, and grew up enough in the aftermath to try to repair the damage.
In my opinion, the pacing was good, the middle unpredictable, and the ending wasn’t too perfect to be believed. It was way too far into the book, though, for the revelation that Eric and Jason were brothers, and I had to go back to some of the earlier passages and see how that information changed the dynamic of the relationship I thought I was reading about. Entertaining and fun, angsty and frustrating, this book is a pleasant escape into the lives of other people who make mistakes and are man enough to try to fix them. We should all be so lucky to find that kind of courage in ourselves and our relationships.