on February 16th 2016
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Catherine meets James in the late 1990’s as she’s wrapping up her first year at Dublin’s Trinity College. From the moment James stumbles into her room, returning home from a year away in Berlin, the pair share an instant, irreplaceable bond. He is outgoing and playful, confident and funny in ways that perfectly balance her self-conscious reserve. Just a few years after Ireland’s decriminalization of same-sex sexual activity, Catherine is surprised when James reveals he is gay, but finds herself clinging to him in a new, increasingly concerning way.
Each section of Tender has a distinct style that aligns with Catherine’s quickly eroding mindset, as she is aware of her problematic choices but dominated by her increasing jealousy. What starts as long, diary-like stream of consciousness breaks down to one line snippets, as if unable to process beyond a single thought. At times I hoped the narrative would switch to reveal James’s perspective, but McKeon masterfully weaves his thoughts into Catherine’s without needing to shift the story.
“He was not trying to comfort her, Catherine realized. He was not trying to take something painful away. It was as if he was trying to tell her that something painful had never been hers to hold on to at all.”
McKeon’s characters are not easy to like, with their conversations steeped in irony and skills in dodging reality, but they are real in a way that will be achingly familiar for many readers. Tender is so much more than a campus novel, coming-of-age story, or tale of unrequited love, it’s an uncomfortable look at the point in life when we know better but can’t quite do better.