Book Review

Review of Not Quite Out by Louise Willingham

February 2, 2021
The book Not Quite Out by Louise Willingham, which has a pale blue front cover with two white male characters drawn on it. One has blond hair and is wearing a blue sweater over a pink shirt and looking towards the reader. The second has brown hair, is wearing glasses and a pinkish purplish shirt and is walking away from the reader but looking back over his shoulder. Next to the book lay a postcard which says "you are tenacious" on it, with 3 horizontal bands of colour in pink, purple, and blue; a blue book plate saying the same thing and which is signed by the author and a blue bookmark with the book's title on it. They are all laying on a piece of dark purple tissue paper.

I have just finished reading Not Quite Out today and had to jump on here to write a review for two reasons: 1) I think it is a beautifully written book and wanted to share that with you, and 2) I was rather shocked by the negative reviews on goodreads and wanted to address some of the concerns some reviewers had, because it feels almost like I read an entirely different book to them.

What is the book about?

Not Quite Out is a story about love and friendship, battling inner demons, and learning to trust others with our secrets. It is written from the point of view of William, who is a second year medical student at Keele University, and who has yet to feel able to come out as bisexual even though he has some very close friends within the LGBT Society. He has just come out of a relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and the story begins as he sees Daniel for the very first time. His attraction is immediate, and yet the next few times he bumps into Daniel he notices a change from his cheerful demeanour to someone who seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders.

William begins to suspect that Daniel is in an abusive relationships, recognising the signs having recently seen this sister come out of an abusive relationship too, and he is desperate to offer friendship and support to Daniel. Daniel is, of course, initially suspicious, but over time begins to see that William simply wants to help him. And as they get to know each other better, their friendship grows stronger and stronger. William’s attraction to Daniel is clear to everybody, including his friends who all repeatedly ask him if he is gay and in a relationship with Daniel. This bothers William, who simply doesn’t feel able to find the strength to say, “I’m bisexual”, despite desperately wanting to and knowing that they would all support him. Plus, he knows that Daniel is not ready for another relationship, and his love and care for him as a friend is greater than any attraction he may feel (although sometimes it is a hard won battle, given how much physical comfort they both seem to get from hugs and cuddles).

It takes most of the book for William to even come close to admitting he is bisexual and that he is attracted to Daniel. We eventually see him coming out to Daniel, his friends, and his family, and the book ends the way you would hope it would. But along the way we see William and Daniel face the pressures of university life, the struggle to begin recovering from an abusive relationship and drug addiction, a major falling out amongst friends, drunken actions that are regretted the following morning, and the challenge of being half a world away from the one you love. It is an emotional rollercoaster of a ride, and it’s one I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

What I loved most about Not Quite Out

There are several things I loved about Not Quite Out, not least of which were the short chapters. As I say, the story is pretty emotionally intense, and so it was helpful to be able to take regular breaks from it to catch my breath. But the thing I love the most about the book is that the characters were so beautifully flawed. There wasn’t a single character in the book who didn’t have an issue of some sort, and the relationships between them all were delicately nuanced. I had no trouble imagining the conflicting emotions they were all feeling, even though it was all written from William’s point of view, because the dialogue between them and their actions made it so clear. That’s not to say that their motivations were always obvious, just that you could tell when they were angry or frustrated with the situation rather than simply being supporting characters that never did anything beyond being supportive.

And William, oh William, how I felt a connection to him. As a heterosexual woman, I have never had to experience the challenges that he did in trying to come out, and having a glimpse into what that could be like is something I needed to see. But whilst Not Quite Out centres a lot around this struggle, the story is far more complex than that, and so is William. He is not a one dimensional character with just a single battle to overcome, he has many different dimensions. He cared deeply about those around him, and genuinely wanted to make people’s lives better. He was committed to his studies, although the pressure of it sometimes got on top of him. He was incredibly emotional, and could easily fall into a panic attack when faced with overwhelming conversations or situations. And yet he was the solid rock that his friends needed when they needed him to be.

These things all made me feel like I understood William so well, despite not knowing the pain he was feeling when it came to coming out. In other ways I was pretty jealous of him – he felt able to let his emotions show and his friends comfort him, and he and his friends were completely at ease with providing physical hugs and comfort to each other in a way I certainly didn’t at nineteen.

William and Daniel’s relationship

And then there was Daniel. Oh, sweet Daniel. He had been through so much, and yet the way he both allowed William to care for him and then cared for William in return was just so beautiful. He had so much he had to overcome, and yet his friendship with William helped him to face everything he needed to. One of the negative comments made over on goodreads was that Daniel’s recovery from both an abusive relationship and heroin addiction was glossed over, as if the pain he would have felt was relieved far too easily. And I just don’t understand that comment at all. William worries about Daniel’s broken ribs repeatedly, long after they have physically healed. He sees William at his worst, vomiting and woken by nightmares. They both worry about what would happen if Daniel’s ex-boyfriend found out about how close he and William are. And whenever anything happens that could possibly affect Daniel, William insists on him calling his therapist.

Just because Daniel makes great progress in his early recovery, doesn’t mean he isn’t still haunted by demons. Right near the end of the book, even after his solo trip to New Zealand, he is caught out by a desperate phone call from his ex and ends up getting hurt once more because he couldn’t stay away. And he tells William that he isn’t ready for a relationship because he feels like his ex ruined him. Not once was I given the impression that just because Daniel was becoming more confident and happy he had forgotten what he had been through. Recovery from anything isn’t a linear process, and I think this was covered so well in Not Quite Out.

Neither is the relationship between William and Daniel a one-way thing. There is no “saviour complex” on William’s part, which was another suggestion I saw over on goodreads. Daniel gives to William as much as William gives to him, and they have a perfectly balanced give and take, both when it came to supporting each other as well as hurting or worrying each other. My very favourite part of the entire book – and it’s hard to choose just one part – was when Daniel stops William from running away in a panic and says the following:

‘You know it’s okay, don’t you?’
[…]
‘Whatever you’re scared of. Whatever it is that keeps upsetting you. It’s okay – I do not mind. Whatever it is. You do not have to tell me.’

Page 174 of Not Quite Out by Louise Willingham

Isn’t that just the most beautiful and loving response anyone could give someone who was scared and panicking? I almost cried when I read it, because there are so many times in my life when all I needed was someone to hold me and comfort me without feeling the need to explain why I was upset. I think I fell in love with Daniel in that moment, never mind William.

The complexities of relationships

I guess one of the reasons I loved this book so much was because both of the main characters were hurting, and yet it was through their love for each other that they managed to face it all. I feel that so deeply, because it is what Tim and I have been through in our relationship too. We have faced so much together: physical illness; mental health issues; suicidal moments; workplace discrimination; unemployment; career changes; falling into poverty; loss of friendships; and so much more. And yet we are stronger today than we ever have been, because our relationship just works. It hasn’t always been easy, in fact there have been times when we have both been pushed far beyond our limits, and I have no doubt that if we didn’t complement each other so well we probably wouldn’t have made it this far together. But, as my friend once mentioned to us a few years back, when she looks at us she just sees a couple madly in love with each other. And that’s what it felt like watching William and Daniel throughout this book.

And I wonder if that is why some of the negative reviews on goodreads make me feel like I read a different book to those who wrote them. Maybe to others this kind of relationship does feel impossible. Maybe they see a power dynamic within it that reminds them of something that they have experienced and I haven’t. And I get that, I do. But for me, this book is just a delight. I even get the whole falling in love with someone but being afraid to actually act upon it. Because that’s what happened for me. I was attracted to Tim the moment I first met him. I knew he was special and I liked him. But I was also scared of how strongly I felt that. And I was scared of starting a relationship, even though I wanted one. So I told him I wanted to try and be friends first, even though we had met via online dating. I know, talk about being confused!

And as we grew closer and people just began to assume we were already together, I began to get even more scared because I was so overwhelmed by what I was feeling. I’d jump out the car at the end of a trip to the cinema before Tim could think of kissing me. I remember sitting next to him on my parents’ sofa late one night desperately wanting to hold his hand but scared of what that might lead to. And then the first time Tim actually kissed me I got myself so worked up that I spent the entire weekend he was staying with us feeling sick and eventually threw up on the Sunday morning, leaving him watching TV with my parents whilst I went to bed. Poor guy, he didn’t know what he was letting himself in for!

The following day I texted him to apologise, and he told me it was okay to go back to being friends again if I wanted to. He didn’t want that, but he wanted me to be comfortable. And in that moment my heart sank and I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be with him and going back to being friends was the worst thing I could imagine. After that, those conflicting and overwhelming emotions all but disappeared, and I ended up relocating to move in with him less than 6 months later.

So I get it. I totally get it when William puts his attraction aside because he knows Daniel just needs a friend. I get his confusion over the physical comfort they gave each other, even though they weren’t in a relationship. I get the frustration he felt over people assuming they were in a relationship when they weren’t. I get how Daniel told William he wasn’t ready for a relationship, but how actually it turns out that only really applied to anybody other than William. I get it, and I think that’s why I love William and Daniel’s super slow burning romance in Not Quite Out so much. It feels so relatable to me.

But I also understand how unrelatable it may be to others. And that’s fine, we can’t all relate to everything. Although I do think reading things we can’t personally relate to is important in life too. I just feel sad that some of the comments on goodreads totally slate Not Quite Out and see William as a deeply flawed, toxic, manipulative, narcissist, because that is so far from how I see him it’s unreal. Which is why I wanted to write this review to give my own personal response to the book. And I’d totally recommend it if you’re looking for a good, emotionally evocative read.

Where to buy Not Quite Out

Not Quite Out comes out on 9th February 2021, although you can already get copies from Queer Lit which come complete with a signed bookplate, bookmark, and sticker (can I just say, all books should come with a bookmark!)

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