Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Match Maker by Alan Chin





In the four years since being forced off the professional tour for being gay, Daniel Bottega has taught tennis at a second-rate country club. He found a sanctuary to hide from an unkind world, while his lover, Jared Stoderling, fought a losing battle with alcohol addiction to cope with his disappointment of not playing on the pro circuit. Now Daniel has another chance at the tour by coaching tennis prodigy Connor Lin to a Grand Slam championship win. He shares his chance with Jared by convincing him to return to the pro circuit as Connor's doubles partner. Competing on the world tour is challenging enough, but Daniel and Jared also face major media attention, political fallout from the pro association, and a shocking amount of hate that threatens Connor's career in tennis, Jared's love for Daniel, and Daniel's very life.

Simply this: that at a certain point in each person’s life, he loses control of what is happening to him, and he becomes controlled by fate. It’s so easy to believe. It takes all the responsibility away from us, and we like that. But it is only a lie, a truly insidious lie
--- Alan Chin, “Match Maker”

Words. I need words. But, you know, sometimes words fail, and they’re failing me right now as I try to present my review—oh, wait, I don’t DO reviews, do I? So there. I’m free to gush like a bubbly fountain because I don’t have to critique, I just get to…well…babble.

If Ron Howard and Franco Zeffirelli collaborated to create a story—Howard’s poignancy and emotional grit and Zeffirelli’s lavish, sweeping glimpses into exotic worlds—the result would be a piece such as Alan Chin’s Match Maker.

First of all, don’t let the title or the setting of the book—the world of pro tennis—turn you away from this story. I know absolutely nothing about tennis, if you don’t count my temporary jaunt in my teens when I bought a racket and pretty balls but never used them. But, somehow, Chin managed to propel me into the fast-paced world of the game—fascinating me with the ultra-cool terms and the thrill-of-victory-and-the-agony-of-defeat emotion; and, by the time I closed the book, I was mentally ready to take on Martina Navratilova. The prose, the knowledge of the sport—not boring but extremely exciting—was that vital.

You know I love to expound on characters, and I’m learning I can never choose just one. Well, Match Maker was no exception.

Do you want to know a secret? I should be ashamed, but I was initially drawn to the book by the introduction of Connor Lin, the eighteen-year-old aspiring tennis champ with the familiar overly pushy father, the center of the story. I adore, adore, adore Asian men, and young Connor immediately captivated me.

Oh, come on! Before you wag your head at me, read this description of Connor: I took in the vision before me. His body lay quivering, lean and golden and perfectly defined. I had not seen him undressed before, and his sculpted loveliness stunned me. I understood why Shar couldn’t resist him. His burnt-coffee-colored hair cascaded toward the floor, one arm crossed over his eyes, his other foot braced on the floor. Sweat beaded on his breast and ribs, and under the glistening moisture were cool bluish veins weaving under the pale skin.

Though the book is laden with some of the most beautiful, sensual sex scenes I’ve ever read—and I even hesitate to call them ‘sex’ scenes, as they are not explicit but tender, excruciatingly so, yet still manage to send shivers up the spine and delicious spasms to the belly—the sensual physical aspects of the story are wondrously used to speak the characters’ emotions loud and clear instead of dialogue in some scenes. And, by the careful placement of these scenes, the author proves one of my strongest beliefs: that intimacy IS a language all its own. So, if sex is a language, then Alan Chin, in Match Maker, has created a beautiful, complex dialect all his own.

The heroes of the story are Daniel Bottega and Jared Stoderling, who have been inseparable since their youths. Daniel—although a good tennis player himself—took a back seat to the promising tennis dynamo, Jared; but he was content to do so, he loved him that much.

Daniel and Jared’s relationship is realistic. It’s good, it’s bad. And when it’s really bad, the men are tested, especially Daniel. And Daniel’s heart—through Chin’s mastery of words that pierce the reader’s gut like a knife with those very recognizable hurts and smiles—is cut into pieces by his lover’s fall from stardom at the hands of bigotry in sports.

Of course, I can’t reveal plot. But Daniel’s dealings with Jared’s decline, with Jared’s alcoholism, hurt my heart. Although I’ve never dealt with alcoholism, I still knew the pain. None of us are immune to it.

At one point in the story, Daniel mused, A jolt of panic rifled through me, thinking that this was the moment. The support structure of our relationship had been deteriorating for years, and now it was about to collapse. With so few words, but such perfect words, Chin drove the anguish in Daniel’s heart home to the reader, right smack dab in the middle of the core.

All us humans relate to obstacles in our own way, but I know that few of us are immune to the drive that keeps us tied to our love, that just will not let us walk away. And Chin translated this universal ‘disability’ with clarity. I think—no, I know—very few readers would NOT see themselves though some aspect of Daniel Bottega.

One thing I loved about Daniel was that Chin allowed him to find pleasure in touches and sights of other men, and still not stray from his rock solid love for Jared. That, my friend, is human. And I’m not sure but what Alan Chin is one of the first bold writers I’ve read who allows for this very real facet of human nature—where the hero is tempted at times, yet you don’t want to call him a creep, but you love him for it. Beauty is beauty, in Daniel’s eyes, even if it is in the form of another man. And if there ever was a man who could find reason to roam, it would be Daniel; but he does not. True to his character, his potent, unyielding love keeps him true to Jared.

One thing happens in this story that, when I came to it, I almost closed the book. I thought, oh, no, not this angle. But I’d invested too much of my heart in the characters and I could not abandon them.

And I was glad, so glad, I did not walk away.

Chin took this dramatic surprise and—once the urge to knock him upside his talented head for letting it happen in the first place passed—I realized I’d witnessed story telling in its most sublime form. He turned the event into a triumph which was a far cry from the melodrama it could have become, and wove it into a million reasons for me to fall even deeper in love with Daniel than I already was. Could the man BE any more human, could he BE any more beautiful? I wondered, I truly did.

When I referred to Ron Howard and Franco Zeffirelli, well, you obviously know by now why I thought of a Ron Howard movie. Nobody can dish out the emotion like Howard; well, not until Alan Chin stepped onto the court.

And Zeffirelli? Well, Chin takes us all over the world, from San Francisco to the Mediterranean with its blue skies, bleached white structures and clear, gorgeous champagne-colored water. I felt the sun on my face, the sand beneath me, the breezes wafting into the bedroom while I made love to Jared. Wait! Sorry! I didn’t make love to Jared in the sun-drenched bedroom, that was Daniel. See? It was so real, so divine, so sensual, I took a free flight across the globe, courtesy of Alan Chin.

Daniel Bottega’s story is a treatise on survival against the odds, love that just won’t quit, even when the object of the affection unconsciously tries to snuff it out. It’s a beautiful commentary on survival, heartbreaking-but-ultimately-heart-swelling-with joy hanging on to what you know is there, what you KNOW is worth hanging on for. It’s a symphony on self-esteem, and on the many factors that can wreak havoc on it. It’s a lesson on how to regain that self-esteem.

Most of all? To me? It’s a beautiful poem on love. After all, love is—even though we don’t really realize it—at the core of everything, one way or another. And Chin paints across this canvas with such beauty, such softness, and then lets you step back and take a deep breath, a satisfied breath. And you know you just fell in love with Daniel and his gang, but mostly Daniel.

The ending alone is so happy, so powerful….can I give you a hint…the game is on. And, when you’ve finished the book and read those words, and know what they mean and what they cost, I’ll bet you a million dollars that you’ll cry. I did.

I’ll stop with one of the most beautiful thoughts in the book:

Everyone weaves a unique tapestry, using threads of happiness and sorrow, honor and shame, to create a multi-colored landscape that is our past. The secret is knowing that the tapestry is a mirage. It doesn’t really exist. There is only now and what is to come. It is life’s mystery—and its blessing.

2 comments:

Victor J. Banis said...

Carol, thank you for a beautiful review. I absolutely love this book and I'm thrilled to see you share my reaction to it. It's such a roller coaster ride, right up to the last words.

Victor

C. Zampa said...

Rollercoaster ride it is, Victor. A beautiful, poignant ride. And, yes, right up to the last word. In fact, those last few words were what I call the perfect ending. It was such a pleasure to read and review.