[TESTIMONIALS] When we were sea and stars

Reviewed by Gee on Goodreads

“Sometimes I wonder if blaming it all on fate isn’t only an excuse. Maybe we say ‘it was destiny’ because we’re afraid to admit that we gave up.”

When we were sea and stars, Elen Chase

If I had to explain in a single sentence why WWWSAS has become one of my top reads of the year already, and why I describe it as “Call Me By Your Name done right”, I would offer this one: “While CMBYN bored me to tears, WWWSAS moved me to tears“. There were so many things I loved in WWWSAS! It has the same ‘lazy summer in a seaside town, under the Italian sun’ vibes as Aciman’s triumph; only, Elen is far from a problematic person (she’s the sweetest!), and this book is actually interesting.

This novel starts when James’ family lands in a small seaside town in Southern Italy to spend a few weeks of vacation. Although they look every part the perfect American family, their relationships with each other are far from ideal; since James went through something horrible during the school year, things haven’t been the same. His parents are weird around him, and his sister, who once looked up to him, now seems to loathe his guts. As a result, James doesn’t really expect much from the family vacation…, until he lands eyes on Roberto, one of the family next door’s sons and totally James’ type. From the moment they meet, James feels attracted to Rob, who would be the perfect guy for him if he didn’t have fiancé, and if James and his family weren’t leaving in a few weeks. But… Rob makes James feel special. Seen. Understood. And the chemistry between them soon becomes too intense to be ignored.

“Cutting a person off a picture won’t cut them off your memories”

When we were sea and stars, Elen Chase

There are so many things to love about this book! One of them has to be the characters. The protagonists, James and Rob, are quite different. the 19-year-old American carries a difficult past around, which makes it difficult for him to value and respect himself; whereas the 25-year-old Italian seems to have it all, but feels like there’s something missing in a relationship he feels trapped in. I really felt for James, whose wounds keep bleeding after so many months, and whose past is explored slowly and carefully as the story unfolds. Even though at first he comes across as a carefree teen just looking for the next fling, he’s really far from that! As the book progresses, and as he gets closer to Rob, cracks begin to appear in this façade he puts up so that nobody sees how much he’s hurting. In that sense, both Rob and Elen herself did an amazing job at dealing with a trauma as deeply ingrained as James. As much as certain scenes and plot-twists hurt, I’m really fond of how James’ past was handled.

Rob’s conflicts were also well done. To put it simply, Rob is a young man that finds himself stuck in a relationship that he doesn’t really want, but that has become his comfort zone as well as what’s expected of him. Everyone thinks they know Rob, how he functions and what he’s like; particularly his cousin Francesco, who is also gay and thinks he understands Rob better than Rob himself. As a result, Rob may not carry an emotional burden as heavy as James’, but he does have to face people’s different prejudices and stereotypes about him every day. His interactions with James help him start wondering about things in his life he hadn’t ever thought about, and as the pages fly by, Rob starts becoming a different, more mature person. Again, I loved the exploration of topics that should be talked about more. When we think we’ve figured someone out, why are we so reluctant to accept that they may have changeed, or that we may be wrong? Even more so when that “someone” is us ourselves. How much does the need for a comfortable, safe place in life hold us back?

“You’re passionate (…). You can get the best education in the world, you can find the finest job, but you can’t start thinking with your brain when your blood tells you to think with your heart.”

When we were sea and stars, Elen Chase

As a result of my fondness of the two MCs, I was really invested in their relationship. They’re almost instantly physically attracted to each other, but their love is built upon shareed silences, trust, and a willingness to see beyond what the other seems to be. Their story isn’t free of rough patches, and there were a few moments in which I had to take a moment to take deep breaths. The final pages were particularly emotion-provoking, and had me crying all the good tears! Taking into account that I read the book in one sitting, because I physically couldn’t stop reading, the roller-coaster of emotions it took me on is particularly remarkable, and a testament to Elen’s skill. Very few contemporary romance books have ever managed to fascinate me the way “When We Were Sea and Stars” did.

“What was he doing to me? What magic was he trapping me in, that I could feel so lost, and then find myself again in his eyes?”

When we were sea and stars, Elen Chase

Although I’m not Italian (I’m Spanish, though, so our cultures are pretty similar in many ways), I’ve been to said beautiful country, and I appreciated all the Italian-ness so, so much! Italians, just like us Spaniards, value family and bonds a lot, and are particularly fond of lengthy times spent around the table, even after the meal in question has been eaten, with friends and relatives. Many characters populate James and Rob’s story, each of them their own persona. I have a soft spot for Jenn, Rob’s hard-metal cousin, and Marco, Rob’s brother; as well as for James’ parents, who provide very poignant moments with his son. This novel was full of tributes to that love for one’s community, as well as of delicious food and beautiful moments in the beach, playing the guitar, or celebrating. Even though the descriptions were a little scarce in the first pages, soon the book found its footing, and offered a perfectly balanced blend of descriptions, dialogues, and inner monologues. Not once did I feel bored, or tempted to stop reading.

“When you look at me, I feel I’m the world’s luckiest bastard.”

When we were sea and stars, Elen Chase

I’ll be forever grateful that I heard about this beautiful book on Indie Bookstagram, because it made me feel so much, it’s quickly become a favourite queer read. Cam’t wait to re-read it, already! It’s the perfect summer read for anyone looking for a beautiful romance, an Italian-flavoured story, or simply a feel-good contemporary novel about two boys falling in love. Can’t wait for the sequel, “When We Were Fire on Fire”!

CWs: Abusive relationship (mentioned, challenged), Alcohol, Anxiety, Explicit sexual content, Guilt, Homophobia (challenged), Online abuse and shaming (mentioned, challenged), Sexual violence (mentioned, challenged), Trauma.



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