Painting the Desert is the sequel to The Center of the Earth and Sky in which Sean Michael continues the story of Whit (Bartholomew Whittaker), who lives with his lovers and beloved twins, Grey and Raine Holstein. They’ve been living a charmed and magical life, but their whole world is threatened when Grey is diagnosed with cancer, and everything starts to fall apart. Grey is their rock, and as he’s ravaged by the cancer treatments, Whit and Raine struggle to hold it together. Will Whit find the strength to be what his lovers need him to be? Can he remain in the center of such a storm and survive it intact?
Given the story line, Painting the Desert is, by degrees, an intense and poignant read as compared to the first book. The story is once again beautifully written with an ethereal quality and full of sensual images, but at the same time the author takes the reader on an emotional journey in which he deals with the subject of Grey’s cancer head on.
Again, the reader is drawn into the story as a close and quiet observer and the author deftly handles each of the characters’ reactions and emotions as they struggle with the devastation of Grey’s diagnosis, illness and treatments. There is authenticity to Grey’s denial, anger, guilt and fear in reaction to his illness and medical treatment. Equally true to character is Raine’s disabling fear and the certainty that he will literally cease to be if Grey – his heartbeat – were to die. The overwhelming fear, helplessness and exhaustion of both Whit and Raine is palpable as they desperately try to take care of Grey who is going through the ravages of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, losing his hair and becoming emaciated. For Whit, Grey’s illness is a double onslaught. Although he tries to remain their center and their strength, he knows deep down that if he loses Grey he will also lose Raine – as they are of one soul.
There are several heartrending scenes in this book, too numerous to quote, but one that stands out has Whit escaping to the rooftop garden that Grey has built for them to rage and cry alone.
“Arms wrapped around his middle, he put his head on his knees and started to cry. The sobs hurt, pulled from deep inside him, made him just shake. Grey’s beautiful hair gone. His skin already turning sallow, slightly puffy. Cancer in his bones. It wasn’t fair. Not their Grey, their beautiful, strong lover. His beautiful strong lover.
He put his head back and screamed at the sky, threw a tantrum, even stamped his feet on the chair. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair.”
The importance of Grey and Raine’s Navajo roots is woven throughout the story. I felt the that this aspect of the story was written in a thoughtful and respectful manner and that Michael avoided both cliché and the romanticising of Native American ways of life all too often the case in fiction and in particular the romance genre. In another heart-felt scene that employs the indigenous manner of story-telling as a means of contemplation and teaching, all three admit to themselves and to each other that the doctors have done all they can, that Grey remains sick and his body poisoned. They decide to return to the desert, to the twins’ homeland and family and to the traditional ceremonies and medicines of their people as the only chance left to help Grey heal.
“…One day, sickness came.
The brothers fought together and their Whit fought as well. The love never faltered, even as their bodies did. One day, they looked at each other and knew it was time. The poison had to stop.
So they curled together on the bed and held each other and spoke of their lives and their Whit and how to make it easier for the one left behind because they were one soul and could not be separated, even for this.
Then they rested together and laughed, watched the sun rise and set and knew that the beauty in the world would remain, long after they departed.
They shared wine and kissed; they told their Whit they were sorry. They gave him all they were, for as long as they were able.
They told him…they told him they loved him.
…Then, beloved, the skies opened and all the pain sank into the ground. The brothers of the storm reached up together and became one man, one warrior again, running through the skies, calling out to the universe about the brightness of the sun and chasing the lightning.”
Painting the Desert is an emotionally intense and touching story with beautifully written prose and as with The Center of Earth and Sky represents some of this author’s best writing. I adored it as much as the first book, if not more. I suspect that some readers who seek out happily-ever-after may not be pleased with the ending of this story. However, given the circumstances of Grey’s illness the ending is the only one possible, any other would have compromised the integrity of the story. In the end, Grey, Raine and Whit come to a level of acceptance and peace at what the future may hold realising that they need to live everyday for today and to its fullest.
As with the first book, I highly recommend Painting the Desert.