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Massachusetts, 1959: Some people might accuse mathematician Everett Sloane of being stuffy, but really he just prefers things a certain way: predictable, quiet, and far away from Tommy Cabot—his former best friend, chaos incarnate, and the man who broke his heart.
The youngest son of a prominent political family, Tommy threw away his future by coming out to his powerful brothers. When he runs into Everett, who fifteen years ago walked away from Tommy without an explanation or a backward glance, his old friend’s chilliness is just another reminder of what a thoroughgoing mess Tommy has made of his life.
When Everett realizes that his polite formality is hurting Tommy, he needs to decide whether he can unbend enough to let Tommy get close but without letting himself get hurt the way he was all those years ago.
For the first prompt of 2023 – Starting Over – I chose Cat Sebastian’s Tommy Cabot Was Here, a short and sweet second-chance romance set in 1959 about two men who were best friends (and more) at boarding school, went their separate ways after college and who unexpectedly find each other again fifteen years later.
On “Visting Sunday” – a month after the start of the new school year – Everett Sloane is surprised to see a familiar face among the crowds of parents at Greenfields, the prestigious boarding school where he was once a pupil and to which he has returned as a teacher. The face belongs to Tommy Cabot, the youngest son of an influential political family, with whom Everett shared his first kiss, his first sexual experiences and who was his first love – until after graduating college, Tommy told Everett he would be getting married, to exactly the ‘right’ sort of wealthy young woman his family have been expecting him to marry. Heartbroken, Everett left for England right after the wedding, and the two haven’t seen each other since.
Catching a glimpse of the boy at Tommy’s side, Everett realises this must be his son, Daniel, but when he really looks at Tommy, he looks nothing like the polished, successful politician he had imagined Tommy would be by this time; instead he’s a bit frayed around the edges, his clothes slightly dishevelled, his hair overlong, his shave not quite close enough – and he’s holding himself stiffly and somewhat defensively. Before Everett can beat a hasty retreat, however, Tommy notices him and greets him warmly – and with an unexpected hug; after a few excruciating minutes Everett, confused and upset, makes an excuse and walks away.
Tommy is surprised to see Everett at Greenfields, but not surprised to see how little he’s changed over the years, still neat as a pin and just a bit starchy… it hurts to remember how much Tommy had loved coaxing him out of that stuffiness, getting a smile or a laugh out of him, and hurts even more to think how clueless he’d been as to the nature of his feelings for Everett back then, how stupid he’d been not to realise how deeply that cluelessness had hurt the man who had been his best friend. And who could, perhaps, have been so much more.
For all it’s only ninety-one pages long (the rest of the Kindle edition I read is taken up with a preview of Peter Cabot Gets Lost), Tommy Cabot Was Here doesn’t lack depth or emotion. The author rounds out the characters very well indeed, so we get a real sense of their quite different personalities; Tommy the people pleaser, Everett, reserved and quieter, but far more aware of his feelings than the outgoing Tommy was when they were younger, and she creates a strong emotional connection between them so that their rekindled romance is entirely believable. There’s a real sense of longing between them in the early stages of the story, with both of them feeling conflicted about seeing each other again and fearing that maybe it’s too late to be anything more than nodding acquaintances. But the pull they feel towards one another is strong enough to give them the courage to work through past hurts and losses to find a way forward together.
I’ve read a lot of novellas I wish had been longer, but I can’t say that’s the case here. In fact, I think that had this been novel-length, I might have found it too drawn out and criticised it for not containing enough plot! That said, I do think some things are a bit too glossed over (such as Tommy’s decision to come out to his family – it’s 1959, wasn’t he worried someone might report him to the police for being “bent”? – and seek a divorce given he knew he’d be cut off ) and the cameo by Tommy’s nephew Peter (presumably to set up the next book) feels a bit contrived. Despite that, however, I found Tommy Cabot Was Here to be a rather lovely, warm and moving story about finding hope, love and second chances and I’m glad I read it.