Kelly, Anita. Something Wild and Wonderful. Forever, 2023. 384 pp. ISBN 978-1538754887. $16.99
Sometimes I have a rating in my head a few pages in; sometimes it hits midway; I often close a book with a number of stars firmly assigned. This one crept up on me, and the more I wrote and reflected, the count just kept increasing. Truly, this is a five-star romance.
The Pacific Coast Trail is the backdrop for a relationship between a nurse and data analyst (computer analyst? something with IT? I can’t remember and eGalleys are not searchable, sadly.) Recently out–and ousted–by his religious Russian family, lonely Alexei is an avid birder and on the trail to come to terms with this loss and his identity as a gay man. Exuberant Ben has just passed the NCLEX and is on the trail to cleanse his palate from toxic relationships and gain some insight before settling into a health care career in geriatrics. Their meet cute is Alexei noticing a rattlesnake just before Ben and his hiking companions walk into it, and they reconnect again off the trail on a break for food and running water (sinks!) and decide to walk together for a bit.
Their particular chemistry is a mix of banter and attraction and deep appreciation and acceptance for who the other is. There are a few secrets (like the degree of Ben’s queerness) that are early humps to get over, but when Ben asks Alexei to step off the trail for a week to attend a family birthday party and his sister’s high school graduation, he allows the time for processing and Alexei agrees. Unfortunately, he returns to the trail alone when the weight of his loss is juxtaposed with Ben’s welcoming family. The next section of the book is a combination of sent and unsent letters to one another and to friends and family which becomes an excellent device for exploring thoughts and feelings, so Ben and Alexei can rejoin paths at the conclusion of the story.
The journey is a metaphor for their own character development through the desert and into lush woodlands. While told in both viewpoints, Alexei seems to be the one who is more introspective and has more to process, and so gets more screen time (page time?). Formerly observant, Alexei remains prayerful and his spirituality is a lovely thread throughout the novel.
Flora and fauna of the PCT, natural history of the area, and details of hiking culture (trail families, trail magic, trail names, rest days or “zero” days”) make the narrative highly authentic. I’m an armchair traveler and loved the vicarious trip towards the Canadian border, even though I would never want to walk all day and not shower for a week, myself. The descriptions of the setting make the story come alive; Alexei is without camera or phone and has an encyclopedic knowledge of plants and animals that Ben wholeheartedly embraces.
This title comes with thoughtful trigger warnings; medical descriptions stem from minor injuries, self-loathing and family rejection. Kelly is a candid but sensitive writer. The sex scenes are realistic and hot, and the writing hits a few really excellent notes, in particular when Alexei writes of desire lines, the paths that people and animals naturally form around developed paths, eschewing the planned way for the instinctual and right one. The character development is very well-executed (I’ll just say I figured some things out about Alexei before they were revealed). The many literary allusions speak to a very well read writer and augment the story, and the careful construction made this a five-star book for me.
I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #SomethingWildAndWonderful from #NetGalley.