Review: The Beautiful Things Shoppe by Philip William Stover
“Their collections may clash, but their hearts are a perfect match.”
LIKE MANY people, I collect things. I love to acquire, organize, and display items and objects that represent and reflect aspects of my personality and my varied interests. My diverse collection includes but is not limited to, Greco-Roman and Egyptian art/statuary, vintage movie stills, 80s toys, Dracula books, action figures, original signed comic book art and prints, and, as my author bio states in a comedic way, comic books. Author Philip William Stover’s second installment of his Seasons of New Hope series, The Beautiful Things Shoppe, initially appealed to me because I loved The Hideaway Inn, his first novel to take place in the unapologetically queer (and real!) town of New Hope, Pennsylvania. [You can read my glowing review of this novel in an earlier BLOG post.] So, of course, I was on board to read Stover’s second contribution to Harlequin’s Carina Adores Imprint line of LGBTQ+ romance novels. But I was truly compelled to pick it up when I read the book’s blurb and discovered that The Beautiful Things Shoppe was an enemies-to-lovers romance centred around two gay men who are collectors. I knew this suited my interests beyond reading lgbtq+ literature for pleasure. [Above Image Property of Philip William Stover (and that’s 1 L in Philip, not 2!)]
Through the trickery of a third-party meddler with good intentions, these two men end up sharing space in the store each thought they had rented solely; shockingly, this does not go well, mainly for Prescott J. Henderson. Prescott, a fine arts dealer and antique appraiser, is livid when he discovers Pop Culture and Retro Toy fanatic Danny Roman has set up his wares on one side of the store. As far as Prescott is concerned, Muppet Show lunchboxes and Smurf figures do not mix with Chippendale furniture. No sir!
Now, I knowI shouldn’t pull back the curtain too extensively. Enjoy the comedic trope, Ryan. It’s fun. It’s fiction! Still, despite Prescott’s meandering thought that he should have “pressed for more details about how the lease would work,” I think he, as anal-retentive as he appears, would have made himself aware of the store’s square footage and wondered why Arthur, the aforementioned well-intentioned meddler, had given him, or at least charged him for renting only half the building. What did the lease agreement state? Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I know I would not have taken a business misrepresentation as agreeably as these guys inevitably do. I remember reading the novel’s first chapter and feeling anger toward Arthur for knowingly misrepresenting Prescott and Danny’s deals. Yes, eventually, I realized I was getting in my own way of fully embracing this lighthearted gay romance romp; my husband has told me repeatedly that my preference for realism in non-fantasy/ScFi fiction often creates a barrier to simple enjoyment. Yes, I over-scrutinize things, but it stems from inserting myself into the narrative and wondering why the character(s) don’t react the way I would. But it’s okay now. I reread this section without looking at it through the lens of, let’s say, a U of T Business grad, and smiled at the “What the—!” of it all. Okay, I’m enjoying the story—so let’s get back to it! [Above image is a peek at a few pieces in my collection. I bet Danny would be interested. Who doesn’t love Scooby-Doo?!]
Prescott is a fun character to feel prickly toward initially as he comes across as an arrogant aesthete. His elitism and pretentious demeanour stem from a history of being an only child who never learned to communicate his interests to others, believing no one, especially those his age, would understand his unique and rarified tastes. Prescott has lived a solitary life of minimal social interaction and trust. What’s engaging about Prescott is that he’s not your typical fictional snob. He’s not some one-dimensional rich kid; as a (former) library professional, he’s not rich at all. His interest in high art never stems from a position of “Look what I have that you don’t!” or “This item costs a lot of money, and I can sell it for even more money!” His appreciation for high art and antiques comes from a place of true love and respect for the item’s quality, the craftsmanship, and the powerful emotional transference between the object and the collector. And he works hard to acquire these items. Nothing comes to him from a Platinum-Level credit card. Prescott has a multi-layered depth, and we, the reader, must journey along with Danny as he attempts to peel these layers away to find the armoured heart of a man who secretly, desperately wants to be understood and appreciated. And, thus, free to be open to romance.
I really like the character of Danny. He reminds me a lot of my dear friend, Greg, who has sadly passed away. Danny is an easy-going gay bear who adores retro culture and kitsch like Greg was. I love much of what Danny collects and have a deep emotional attachment to these types of items, but I’m not as “whimsical” or easy-going as he is. That was Greg’s role in our friendship. But don’t let the “Doh-Dee-Doh” happy-go-lucky demeanour fool you into thinking Danny has no depth or seriousness about him. As Greg did, Danny has thoughts and feelings he keeps private but doesn’t allow—or wants to allow these potentially serious feelings to alter the flow of his appreciation for what life has to offer. It’s a genuine desire to see the bright side of things and project that outward. Danny and Prescott are two sides of the same coin. They both have a deep connection to and affection for material things that inspire, remind us of the past, and represent human creativity. But there’s never a sense from either one of them that this fondness has crept over the line toward materialistic worship. It’s a profoundly personal relationship between humans, their memories, and emotionally representational objects, not dehumanizing consumer idolatry. [Image to the above right is GREG, my version of Danny.]
An aspect of the book that particularly caught my attention is how Stover further differentiates his two main characters’ personalities through their specific clothing choices. It might come across as a stereotype that love for antiques equates to Prescott’s fussiness and rigid conformity in his fashion choices, but I get it. At the same time, pop culture collectibles are human-personified here by Danny’s quirky fashion choices and carefree, unconcerned attitude toward how others interpret his outward appearance. I get this too. It’s more accessible. Readers can connect with these characters more quickly and smoothly if it takes little detective work to identify and comprehend their place, purpose, and intent within the narrative. Stover succeeds in this.
As the humorously combative relationship between Prescott and Danny begins to simmer, Stover throws that wrench into the works with the introduction of a troublemaking man from Prescott’s past, a time-sensitive dilemma involving the fate of the building that houses the shoppe, and that always expected misunderstanding that might ultimately derail any future between Danny and Prescott. The flow of this enemies-to-lovers story is quick and straightforward, witty yet moving, and beautifully passionate when the time comes for romance. The cast of supporting characters, some new and some first introduced in The Hideaway Inn, is as varied and delightfully mischievous as one would expect from a Stover novel. The representation of queer diversity is once again strong. As Stover himself writes, “I wanted to create a community where everyone is welcome, and everyone feels seen.” Philip William Stover’s The Beautiful Things Shoppe was a joy to read (and reread!) and a worthy addition to the Seasons of New Hope series. [Above image is the New Hope–Lambertville Bridge Illuminated at Night.]