Whistling in the Dark, by Tamara Allen

15 Jun
Cover for Whistling in the Dark; an old photo album, showing a couple of young men looking at each other. Some music sheets, and a coffee cup.

The most lovely Marilyn recommended this book on twitter when it was on sale, and I’m very glad I caught it. And hey, look, it fits this month’s theme for SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge!

Reader beware: both of the main characters suffer from PTSD; there’s also alcohol abuse, mentions of suicide ideation, grief and death of loved ones, and some violence on page.

This book was originally published in 2008, and was re-released by the author this month.

Whistling in the Dark, by Tamara Allen

Set in New York City after The Great War, this novel about two people dealing with a host of problems, from mental health and addiction issues, to violence and criminal prosecution, manages to be also a sweet and gentle love story, without glossing over the wider society’s criminalization of homosexuality.

His career as a concert pianist ended by a war injury, Sutton Albright returns to college, only to be expelled after an affair with a teacher. Unable to face his family, he heads to New York with no plans and little money–only a desire to call his life his own.

Jack Bailey lost his parents to influenza and now hopes to save the family novelty shop by advertising on the radio, a medium barely more than a novelty itself. When he and Sutton cross paths, despite a world of differences separating them, their attraction cannot be denied. Sutton finds himself drawn to the piano, playing for Jack. But can his music heal them both or will sudden prosperity jeopardize their chance at love?

The writing is lovely; it’s easy to start reading and just keep going. However, there’s an ever present sense of menace hanging over both Jack and Sutton that felt at times suffocating to me. (Full disclosure: even low-key angst is often difficult for me to read these days, so this may be absolutely your jam, gentle reader, as much as it made it difficult to continue reading for me at times.)

Sutton is terrified of being hauled back home by his wealthy parents and forced to marry the girl they’ve already chosen for him, whereupon he’ll make someone else as miserable as he’s been for years. He’s also old-fashioned and young, almost innocent, despite his war wounds and his previous romantic entanglement.

While much more street/city savvy, Jack lives under constant threat of violence from gangsters to whom he owes money he can’t repay, plus a self-destructive streak a mile wide that makes him put himself (and often those who love him) at risk–well beyond being gay in New York in 1919, that is. Of the two, Jack’s struggles with PTSD are the more violent, and compounded by losing his parents, fairly recently, to influenza during the pandemic.

There is also an undercurrent of class difference between them. At their most affluent, Jack’s parents were barely middle class, and for the past couple of years, he’s barely been able to keep the shop open, forget about making an actual profit. Meanwhile, Sutton had a college education, the upbringing befitting a scion of a proud and wealthy white Midwestern family, and enough talent to light up the world.

The ending is sweet and hopeful, and the found family around Jack first, and Sutton later, serve to remind us that people have always been able to find love and live full, happy, hopeful lives, even when the law has deemed their love, and their very lives, criminal.

The setting, not just the city but the time, is very well done; ragtime and jazz, smoking and booze, in those last months right before prohibition. Radio, a nascent medium for communication, music and advertising. A changing world, mourning what had been lost, while hurtling forward towards progress. All of this and more can be felt as Jack’s and Sutton’s relationship grows into love.

Whistling in the Dark gets 8.75 out of 10

6 Responses to “Whistling in the Dark, by Tamara Allen”

  1. willaful 15/06/2022 at 2:49 PM #

    This is partially read on my kindle; I couldn’t get past the violent scene near the beginning. I do have a lot of trouble with menace these days, though I’m reverting back more to my usual reading habits lately.

    • azteclady 15/06/2022 at 3:27 PM #

      It was *so hard* for me to get past that, and I stalled in a couple of places because the threat of more of the same loomed large. There are a couple other incidents, though none as violent or…well, horrible, as the first one.

  2. whiskeyinthejar 16/06/2022 at 11:00 AM #

    This sounds heavy and hopeful.
    A changing world, mourning what had been lost, while hurtling forward towards progress.
    My after war was the American Civil War and I liked how this was kind of addressed with some characters trying to live as if the War never happened, trying to recapture what life was like before. These feelings are really what I think the prompt was about, how individuals deal with trauma, loss, and progress. I feel like I need to search out a nonfiction after war now but yeah, heavy for summertime reading that I usually try to keep light.

    Happy to see you back in the challenge this month!

    • azteclady 16/06/2022 at 2:22 PM #

      Thank you!

      And yes, the book is hopeful, and the ending is very gentle and sweet.

  3. S. 18/06/2022 at 5:12 AM #

    I’ve read 2 books by this author and while I liked one better than the other, they felt a little too slow for me (lol, looking at my thoughts on them, because I cannot remember much anymore).
    Happy reading!

    • azteclady 18/06/2022 at 6:58 AM #

      I guess it is slow, in the sense that there is no grand external conflict, or an action or suspense plot thread. It’s a…smaller? more intimate sort of story. Highly readable writing voice, though.

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