I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. – Song of Solomon 6:3
First of all, I want to give credit where credit is due for introducing me to Luke Hartwell and this beloved set of books. If not for the tireless efforts of Elisa Rolle to promote the best in LGBT fiction, year after year, I may never have experienced the beauty that is John Parker and Nathan Cernoch. So, thank you, Elisa, for all that you do.
Atom Heart John Beloved and Nathan’s Story are companion pieces—John Beloved can be read as a standalone but shouldn’t be; Nathan’s Story must not be read as a standalone or you will miss out on everything that makes these boys and their evolution so entirely crucial to where they begin.
The books are each told from the first person point-of-view, so in writing both books, Mr. Hartwell has eliminated the oft dwelled upon first person criticism—that thoughts and emotions in the storytelling process are limited to that of the narrator and leave too many unanswered questions about secondary characters, their feeling, and their motivations. I have to confess that as I was reading John Beloved, all I could think about was getting into Nathan’s head for a bit to gauge his thoughts, and knowing that was going to be possible made John’s story all the more compelling.
John and Nathan’s beginning—the story that is the start of them—happens in Sunday school at a fundamentalist evangelical church in the small, conservative city of Weston. Just thirteen years old at the time they meet, their story follows them through their high school graduation; through horrors unimaginable but all too real; through sex and secrets; through the mundane days in the lives of teenage boys, to the revelations that no one, let alone teenage boys, should have to face; through denial and ultimately, acknowledgement.
Nathan is the gay friend, John, the straight—he’s so straight and pursues sex with such aggression, in fact, that the girls he screws are little more than willing holes in his chase for orgasm. Mary seems to be the only girl who means anything to John, but even she is not enough to keep John faithful to her, nor enough for John to consider denying the gift of himself to his best friend.
John and Nathan begin a sexual journey in their senior year of high school—Nathan because he’s in love with John and will take whatever small piece of himself John is willing to give; John because he loves Nathan enough to want to be the one to make him happy; though for John, there can be no emotional strings attached to the act of fucking—he submits, allows Nathan to use his body, but cannot be anything more than the willing hole in the same way he’s made of the girls he has sex with. That is his penance, steeped in the knowledge that he is not nearly good enough for Nathan to love.
There is darkness in these books, the sort of evil that couches itself in holy righteousness. There is darkness in these books, the sort that couches itself in non-consensual sex, pedophilia, dubiously consensual sex, self-loathing—the sort of loathing that makes a boy deny himself the right to love fully and to be loved completely, in return.
John Parker is a work-in-progress, and Nathan Cernoch loves him enough to settle, to be patient, to be grateful of that giving, even if the giving can’t include the promise of forever. These books are the evolution of love and acceptance and, ultimately, of a future that neither boy could have foreseen when they’d first met, a future that feels like confirmation and redemption. There are still secrets between John and Nathan, secrets that, if discovered, may hold the potential for some serious consequences, but for now, John and Nathan have found the love together they so desperately need.
There is a reason Luke Hartwell is a Rainbow Award winning author: Atom Heart John Beloved and Nathan’s Story speak for themselves and are all the proof you need as to why. They are passionate and provocative books, written with the intent to explore beliefs, to challenge the status quo, to question what it means to love, to at times shock and to incite reaction from the reader.
These are not books for the squeamish; they are books to be experienced as well as read. The parts and pieces of the story are sometimes disturbing, and sometimes the experience will leave you questioning the definition of love, but in the end, they will leave you with the belief that it can be found in the one who makes you feel at home.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend these books wholeheartedly, if not for the content that some readers may find disturbing. I will say that every word on every page, as painful as they sometimes are, are one-hundred percent necessary to the story, never gratuitous, so my recommendation comes with that caveat. For me, it simply made the experience all the more rewarding.
Reviewed by: Lisa
You can buy Atom Heart John Beloved and Nathan’s Story here: