I must admit that I have lately been obsessed with the romance genre, and for more reasons than one. Firstly, I believe it takes a skillful writer to successfully write a satisfying romance, particularly with all the constraints such a formulaic genre imposes. Think about it - with all these rules about what a romance novel is (and make no mistake, the publishers will only publish the stories that meet very strict criteria), how does an author make the story their own? Do you dare attempt making it original?
On a surface level, JL Merrow's novella entitled Muscling Through seems straight out of a romance novel tutorial. The two protagonists are polar opposites; their romance is unconventional; every single external conflict in the story is a result of misunderstandings.
The story is narrated by Al, a rough and somewhat dimwitted ex-boxer, laboring his life away for London tourists. One night, he meets Larry Morton, a university professor, with whom he strikes up an affair. Obviously, the affair turns into eternal love, but not without a complication or two, usually involving their very different backgrounds, communication skills and some painting, of all things.
I am happy to report that Muscling Through may just be the most charming romance I have ever read. Al is such an endearing protagonist - one can't help but root for this big softy of a man. I was not very fond of Larry, however - and I thought that more characterization would have proven beneficial in his case. However, this is a novella - and in the span of about a hundred and fifty pages, a romance afficionado certainly gets plenty of these delicious men.
Muscling Through is, in my opinion, particularly recommendable for first time readers of romance, and especially gay romance. It is short and compact and, despite its minor problems, it contains all the elements that a m/m romance should. There is the wonderful protagonist, an interesting (but realistic!) plot, and the sizzling scenes of intimacy that never feel pornographic. The cast of secondary characters is especially good. This reader was also surprised by the subtle commentaries of the (silent) class system that these characters need to overcome. Muscling Through is definitely a recommended read!