For someone who reads a lot of books and loves to listen to other people talk about books, I’m… not actually that good at talking about books. (It’s that pesky Feelings thing again, I’m sure). That said, I kind of have to talk about Muscling Through by JL Merrow.
A bit of context, first of all: I went, very briefly, to Cambridge and then left at high speed after a year. It wasn’t the greatest year for a number of reasons, including that a fair few people in my college seemed to think I had committed some sort of mortal sin by being a) female b) from the north of England and c) from a state school. I was (and remain!) also d) queer but that didn’t seem to reflect as obviously on my presumed intellect so I was free to just swan around making out with ladies and getting honked at by taxis.*
*This was a one time occurrence!
Being from a state school in the north and also being, you know, me, I had something of a chip on my shoulder about Proving I Was Smart and also about Getting the Hell Out of my small northern town. I was all “I’m smarter than these people and I need to prove it.” (NB: this was not an attractive time for me, personality-wise.) I’d wanted to do English Lit essentially since I learned that that was an option but a teacher told me I would probably get into Cambridge if I did Classics and so that’s what I did.
It was more important for me to go to Cambridge than it was to do something I loved. From the perspective of Current M, let me just say that if this were a book, someone would be screaming FORESHADOWING!!!! and highlighting that in, like, three colours.
I spent a year being increasingly and overwhelmingly miserable and telling myself I’d been given everything I wanted, so I should shut up and like it. Cambridge was beautiful. My friends were wonderful. But… I wasn’t sleeping. I was barely keeping up with the work despite giving it more than I had to give. I was constantly being asked what I was going to do for postgrad when I was barely sure I should have been there for undergrad.
There came a point in third term when everyone else on my course, who had been kicking desperately along with me, realised they could swim. I looked up from my books and realised I was drowning.
Suffice it to say I left and don’t regret it, but what I do regret is this: I loved that university, and had spent so long loving that university, but being there taught me that it wouldn’t, or couldn’t, love me back.
Muscling Through is the story of Al, who often, on first glance, gets written off as a thug, and Larry, a Cambridge professor.It takes readers through the streets of Cambridge as clearly as any Morse episode has ever done in Oxford and paints a gentle and disarming story of two men falling, slowly, into the rest-of-your-life kind of love.
More than that though, Muscling Through is in many ways, a love letter to a place that can be really fucking hard to know and still love. To be selfish again, it articulates my feelings about Cambridge more clearly, thoughtfully, and carefully than I have ever been able to do:
“You know what we do to students here?”
“Teach them stuff?”
Larry laughed again. I didn’t like how it sounded. “What we do is take the brightest kids, the ones that were always top of all their classes back in school – kids who, all their lives, have had people telling them they’re brilliant. And we shove them all together in the hissing, spitting cauldron that is Cambridge, and we say to them, so you think you’re one of the clever ones? Well, you’re in Cambridge University now. You’re not one of the clever ones any more. If you’re lucky, you’re one of the average ones. A simple application of the law of averages will tell you that now, in fact, half of you are the stupid ones.” I stroked his hair. He was shaking a bit; I didn’t get why. “And then we give them a lecture timetable and a book list and say, off you go, get on with it. Oh, and by the way, everyone at home is still expecting you to get a First, because they still think you’re one of the clever ones. And if anyone complains about the way we do things, well, we’ve done it that way for centuries and you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” He didn’t say anything for a moment, and then he spoke again. “Nobody ever warns the eggs they’re going to get broken. They say, ‘We’re making the finest omelet in the world, come and be a part of it.’ And then they take the eggs, and they break them and use them up, and then they throw away the shells.”
If I could go back, I wouldn’t stop myself from going to Cambridge but neither would I stop myself from leaving. It was a wonderful place, and it can do wonderful things, but I could not do wonderful things with the version of myself it needed me to be. I left Cambridge years ago and it’s taken me all those years to figure that out.
And then along came this book.
Muscling Through is a story about finding which parts of yourself you’re proud of, valuing the parts you don’t like, and how you can find someone who’ll make an omelet with you that doesn’t use either of you up.
It’s a beautiful book, and a beautiful story, and I want to go back to that scared 19 year old version of me that left Cambridge, hand it to her, and say, it’s not just you. Someone else understands. You’re okay.
The bigger they come, the harder they fall… in love.
Cambridge art professor Larry Morton takes one, alcohol-glazed look at the huge, tattooed man looming in a dark alley, and assumes he’s done for. Moments later he finds himself disarmed—literally and figuratively. And, the next morning, he can’t rest until he offers an apology to the man who turned out to be more gentle than giant.
Larry’s intrigued to find there’s more to Al Fletcher than meets the eye; he possesses a natural artistic talent that shines through untutored technique. Unfortunately, no one else seems to see the sensitive soul beneath Al’s imposing, scarred, undeniably sexy exterior. Least of all Larry’s class-conscious family, who would like nothing better than to split up this mismatched pair.
Is it physical? Oh, yes, it’s deliciously physical, and so much more—which makes Larry’s next task so daunting. Not just convincing his colleagues, friends and family that their relationship is more than skin deep. It’s convincing Al. (x)