None of the four books features tormented protagonists, or deeply troubling problems that stand in the way of the romances that develop within each. Instead, Merrow gives us humorous, loving portraits of men across the class spectrum, men whose expectations about romance are challenged in funny but telling ways in their small town.
"Guess it's not easy being gay and teaching in a place like that."
I blinked at him. He knew I was gay? Who'd told him? No, I must have misheard him. He hadn't said that. Had he?
Sean took a step back. "Uh, sorry mate. No offense. It's just that you look . . . Sorry."
Oh. "That's quite all right," I muttered to my brogues. My face was hot. I suppose it was only fitting that it should turn a fetching shade of pink, seeing that the rest of me apparently proclaimed my sexual preferences to the world at large. (256)
But it's not Robert's queerness, but rather his far different education and background, that bisexual Sean is commenting on:
"We're not really used to someone like you here," [Sean] said, which made me feel even worse.
"Shamwell has hitherto be a queer-free zone, has it?" I snapped.
"What? No, you got me wrong. I just meant, you're a bit of a cut above, you know?"
"A cut above what?" I asked, suspicious. If there was a circumcision joke in the offing, I was . . . I was getting paranoid, I decided.
"Well, the way you talk—the way you dress, come to that—I'd have thought you'd be teaching royalty at Eton, not slumming it here with us." (261)
Since Sean grew up in council (public) housing, never went to college, and works as a pest control technician, his class position is decidedly different from Robert's. Yet in Shamwell, crossing class lines presents almost as few problems for potential romantic partners as does being queer. In fact, it's the romance trope-y "secret from the past," not queer-bashing or differing expectations stemming from economic or educational backgrounds, that threaten to keep Rob and Sean apart.
I especially enjoyed book #3 of the Shamwell Tales, Out!, which features a thirty-nine-year-old father and a twenty-five-year-old bachelor who have radically different ideas about just how far "out" one should be. Despite finally accepting his queerness after years of living a straight life, recently-divorced tax accountant Mark chooses to move himself and his teen daughter to Shamwell determined "to put his daughter first and avoid looking for hookups while she was living with him" (371). Convinced that the divorce has already put enough stress on Florence (no longer willing to be called Florrie, but instead insisting on being called Fen), Mark is determined to keep his sexual orientation a secret from her. For Mark, "It'd been a revelation . . . seeing young men in their teens and early twenties casually kiss one another on the street after a night out. Had things really changed so much in the last twenty years? Mark couldn't imagine daring to kiss a boy on the street at a similar age" (Out! 361). And he certainly can't imagine explaining to Florrie—ah, Fen—just what another man might be doing in his bedroom . . .
Generation gap, sure, but the idea that an age difference of only fourteen years could make such a big difference in two people's experiences of their society's attitudes toward sexual identity? That made think harder about how not just class and race can affect one's ideas about sexual identity, but how age (even small differences in age) can, as well.
Gobbling up all four of Merrow's Shamwell books over the course of my three-day cold recovery made those hours go by far more quickly than my typical bout with the tissues and decongestants usually does. I'm almost looking forward to my next germ infestation—Merrow has quite a few other series available, ready for my (and your) sick-day reading pleasure.
new editions from Riptide, 2017