It is Auggie’s sophomore year and he is moving back to school and into the Sigma Sigma fraternity house. He hasn’t talked to Theo all summer, with distance having come between them when Theo started dating Cart. Auggie is determined to focus on school, on friends, and on his social media presence. When a hot older fraternity brother starts flirting with him, Auggie even starts to think he may find a guy. But Auggie quickly gets drawn back into trouble when his old roommate, Orlando, comes to him for help. It turns out Orlando’s brother, Cal, has been missing for a week and he is worried. The family is trying to keep up appearances and not make a big deal about it, but they are willing to hire Auggie to do some digging.
Auggie knows he can’t do it alone, so he reaches out to Theo for some help. Even if Theo is a bit resistant, Auggie knows if he dangles the threat to his own safety, Theo will come on board. Plus, the men have missed one another and even though things are still tense, they are happy to rekindle their friendship again. Unfortunately, things don’t turn out well for Cal and he turns up dead, with the police blaming it on his drug use. Things don’t really add up, however, and soon Theo and Auggie find themselves continuing to look into the case. As always, trouble seems to find them and things become more dangerous the further along they get.
On the personal front, things aren’t great for either man. While Auggie does start seeing the hot older guy, Dylan, he also finds himself struggling to please him. Nothing Auggie does is quite right, even when he bends over backwards to be what Dylan wants. In Theo’s case, he and Cart are dating, sort of. Cart still doesn’t want to anyone to know about them, and definitely isn’t ready to come out. And the pressure of it all is really getting to Theo; between the investigation, the danger, the situation with Auggie, and the problems with Cart, Theo finds himself spiraling and once again using drugs to manage it all. With the case heating up, and their personal lives at the breaking point, it is all Auggie and Theo can do to figure out who is behind Cal’s murder — and keep themselves out of the killer’s sights.
Yet a Stranger is the second book in Gregory Ashe’s The First Quarto series. The story picks up at the start of Auggie’s second year and catches us up with what the men have been doing since the end of They Told Me I Was Everything. It doesn’t take long before Auggie and Theo are right back where they were: in the middle of a murder investigation. Ashe is a great mystery writer and this story has some interesting moments as we follow the twists along with Theo and Auggie. I like watching the two of them together, especially as they confront a suspect, as they have a way of playing off one another so well. The men each have their own strengths and they make a solid team. But I will say, I didn’t find this mystery as compelling as in the first book. I think in part this is because the guys are so on and off with the case, and long periods of time pass where nothing really happens in the investigation. It also felt somewhat contrived to me that this family of means is missing their son and they choose to hire their son’s old college roommate and his TA to investigate, rather than say, a private investigator. For their part, I had trouble understanding what motivated Auggie and Theo to keep going, putting themselves in life-threatening danger over and over. There is a point where things get bad — really bad. And yet, Auggie and Theo find themselves getting back involved again and again. I also felt like there were some holes here in the case, logic leaps and things that didn’t fully make sense to me, even when explained. That said, I really didn’t see the reveal coming and there are some intense moments that add excitement to the investigation.
I think this is one of those books that I can appreciate for its quality of writing more than I can fully enjoy based on the story, if that makes sense. I found I struggled both with the Auggie and Theo and their relationship to each other, as well as each of them in their relationships with others. The guys start this book as friends who are kind of estranged, men who had an “almost there” moment, but are now friends with some roadblocks. And they end the book basically the same way. There are some wonderful, lovely moments where we see the guys connect, and I love that. When things work between them, when they are in sync, whether on a case or just hanging around Theo’s house, they are just electric together. But I found there were more moments when the men are fighting, when they are struggling, and when they aren’t particularly nice to one another. I know enough about Ashe’s writing to expect slow relationship development, but unfortunately for me, this felt like no forward progress at all. We get the tiniest of glimmers at the end, but 450 pages pages is a long way to go to get back to basically where we started. I mean, it is clear to us as readers (and to most folks around them) that Auggie and Theo have feelings for each other. But the fact that they have made essentially no change in their relationship over the course of the book is something I found frustrating.
As I said, both of these guys are involved with someone else for the majority of the story. And both of the men they are with are awful and the relationships are emotionally abusive (or at the very least, emotionally manipulative). It was hard for me to watch both Auggie and Theo be so miserable and make such bad choices, sticking with these horrible men who treat them so terribly. In Theo’s case, it feels like he is mostly with Cart out of apathy. Cart has sort of pushed his way into Theo’s life and Theo seems too beaten down to really consider if he wants him or not. It is kind of just easier to let him stay. Cart is brash and rough and treats Theo badly time and again. And Theo just sort of lets it happen because he can’t muster up the energy or desire to take care of himself in order to do anything about it. In Auggie’s case, he is so desperate to be a man, to be seen as an adult, that he gets involved with Dylan because he is older and seems so grown up. Or grown up to a college sophomore. Dylan is really a manipulative asshole, accusing Auggie of not caring about him whenever Auggie won’t do what Dylan wants. He is all about midnight text booty calls, guilting Auggie for interests other than him, and pressuring Auggie into sex. There is also a scene where Dylan gives Auggie drugs (that he pressured him into taking so they could “have a real connection”) and tries to force him into anal. I positively loathed Dylan, and couldn’t stand Cart either, and hated seeing them with Auggie and Theo. Here I come back to how I can appreciate the writing more than I enjoyed watching these dynamics. Because Ashe is so talented, and the nuances here are so good. We can understand exactly why Auggie and Theo are in these relationships, exactly what they need from them. Their reactions and behaviors made perfect sense, even as their situations drove me crazy.
A few other notes. I love Auggie, I really do. But he made me a little nuts here with regard to his brother, Fer, who is falling apart trying to hold his family together, financially and otherwise. And Fer pays for everything, including Auggie’s tuition, car, and expenses. And Auggie knows Fer is struggling, sees it first hand. Yet he spends freely, including buying Dylan expensive gifts to ease the silent treatment. And when Theo suggests, hey maybe get a job, Auggie scoffs at the suggestion that he do something as pedestrian as get a low paying job (like most other college students) to help out. For all that Auggie wants to be a grown up and fights with Theo for the right to be seen as a man, I wanted to shake him a few times when he was so immature about this.
So, I think overall this one was so well written, and Ashe is so smart in the way he puts all the connections together. I can see the layers and the depth to these characters, and I am SO invested in what happens to them. Because I love them and I want them to finally be happy. But I will admit this story did make me a little nuts, at times, watching these guys struggle and make the same mistakes over and over, and just not quite get anywhere. Still, I am eager to see how things all come together, and I am confident it will be worth it!