Riptide / October 21, 2013 / $6.99 digital
Art student and MMORPG addict Robert Ng has always been a loner, but he's recently made it his goal to make more (IRL) friends. Which is how he winds up working nights at Rear Entrance Video, shilling sketchy porn and blowup dolls as a favor to his roommate. The longer he works there, though, the more he realizes he’ll never be truly happy until he becomes the person he is online: his female persona, Bobby.
Bobby is cuter and funnier than Rob is, and a thousand times more popular with boys. Becoming Bobby IRL presents its own set of challenges, though . . . especially when you're sitting on the fence between two genders, only one of which has caught the attention of your seriously cute customer/classmate.
Dylan Ford is a six-foot Inuit comic book artist who always says what’s on his mind, and screw anyone who doesn't like it. As rough as he appears, though, Dylan has a soft spot for Rob. But will out-and-proud Dylan still want Rob if he's not all man?
Wallflower by Heidi Belleau is second in the “Rear Entrance Video” series, set in contemporary Vancouver, Canada. Though you do not need to have read the first book, Apple Polisher, to understand this one, characters from it appear in secondary roles. It’s a male/male erotic romance, with the added element of hero Rob Ng coming to terms with his gender identity over the course of the story. Conflicts involve Rob’s own worries about revealing his female persona, Bobby, to his boyfriend, as well as learning to negotiate prejudice and harassment.
Because Rob’s character progression is such a large part of the plot, it dominates the stage time of his eventual boyfriend, Dylan Ford. Dylan is still a captivating character in his own right, clearly delineated through his dialogue, but I would have been happy to see even more of him and how he and Rob complement each other. Dylan’s Inuit origins are in conflict with his upbringing by adoptive white parents, which adds another level of complexity to his character, and allows for some interesting comparisons to Rob’s Chinese-Canadian ethnicity and how racial prejudice affects his gender identity.
What I liked best about the book had nothing to do with gender identity or presentation or even the romance, at least not entirely. This is a romance about two geeks, and their personalities were so lovingly depicted, with such significant detail, that I felt I recognized them, and really wanted them to end up together and happy. (Which they do, this being a romance!) Dylan is a comic book artist, and attending art school with Rob. Rob is a gamer, and aside from his female character persona online, is horribly shy. I love how his geekiness is such a large part of how he thinks through issues.
Rob’s appearance, even before he tries cross-dressing, is a major part of how he thinks of himself; thus he finds it difficult to change the way he behaves socially until he changes the way he looks. That isn’t the entire reason behind his female persona, of course. However, once he begins to dress as Bobby, going beyond merely fantasizing about being her, he develops more confidence in himself and is able to let his true personality shine through.
But the way he spoke, the way he carried himself . . . people picked up on that, he had to assume, picked up on it and read doormat and nerd and loser and that’s what he was to them, whether he wanted to be that person or not. And eventually, what they thought of him had become the truth, a self-fulfilling prophecy that he couldn’t seem to escape.
… He wasn’t sassy or bitchy or well dressed, and yeah, maybe he was a little “obvious,” but not in that ideal swishy, theatrical way women seemed to love so much. He was just awkward and mousey and too much of a nerd. Bernice’s friends would want to hear his opinions on Ryan Reynolds’s godlike abs, and he’d wind up complaining to them about how disappointed he’d been in Reynolds’s turn as Deadpool—a wasted opportunity if there ever was one, because Reynolds had been perfect for the part; it was too damn bad about that nightmarishly terrible script.
… All the well-intentioned resolutions in the world (make friends, stop being such a loser, make eye contact with people, learn to live IRL) couldn’t breed the neurosis out of him, apparently, so he just stopped trying. Latched onto his hopes for Bobby, instead. Although God knew why he thought of that as a viable alternative. What was he going to do, make a midsemester transition and hope nobody remembered he’d spent the first few weeks—not to mention his entire first semester—as a guy? Or that he’d existed at all? Now that was a nice thought. Clean slate. Walk into the class, introduce himself as Bobby Ng, and he’d just be the new girl, and that status would inspire friendliness in his classmates.
In a way, Rob’s romance is with Dylan but also with Bobby; he has to learn to love and embrace Bobby unreservedly in the outside world, a second coming-out. It’s only when Rob can truly share himself as Bobby with Dylan that they can love each other without barriers.