“She found herself wanting more of it, and she found, too, that it held a challenge: to edge him away from that mockery toward something warmer,” main character and narrator Catherine thinks during her first encounter with James. James is about to become the center of her universe. Set in Ireland in the late 1990s during a time of major social and political changes, Tender is a wonderfully dark story of friendship and obsession. Catherine, an innocent, quiet and self-questioning college student in Dublin, is trying to find her own way, when James, an outgoing and impulsive artist, steps into her life.
Their friendship intensifies quickly, and Catherine has difficulty defining this budding relationship that is far from anything she has ever experienced: “This! This! This! Bouncing off the walls of her mind, and when James stopped, now, and began to turn to her, she stopped in her tracks, panicked. Was this how it happened? If he tried to kiss her, she thought, she would want to throw herself into the canal.” When James reveals moments later that he is gay — “I’m not that kind” — Catherine is relieved, even excited. While it presents considerable hurdles for him, that James is gay opens the door for the two of them to become even closer — perhaps too close.
In Tender, McKeon has developed a compelling story about the evolution of a relationship that cannot always be viewed simply as a friendship. What begins as a seemingly perfect friendship progresses quickly to infatuation and obsession. With James moving back to Berlin for several months, he writes to Catherine daily, describing his work and his frustrations. Catherine enjoys James’s letters and misses him dearly. She does respond with letters of her own more sporadically, but it is clear James needs Catherine more than Catherine needs him. Upon James’ return to Dublin, which becomes permanent, roles begin to shift. At first, it is James pushing to spend every waking moment with Catherine — including attending classes with her. James is trapped by his own sexuality in a society that is not quite ready to embrace same-sex relationships, and he turns to Catherine.
But as James becomes more comfortable in his new setting, developing new friends and becoming acquainted with men whom Catherine sees as potential boyfriends and essentially intruders, it is Catherine who begins to develop feelings of jealousy. Those feelings soon grow darker. Everyone becomes a threat, someone who could take James from her. Interestingly, at times Catherine appears more obsessed with the friendship than with James himself.
Catherine’s evolving thought process and how those thoughts materialize through action are the driving force behind the novel. The beginning of the friendship with James unleashes a new confidence in Catherine, as she stands up to her overbearing parents and, separately, she finally takes the initiative to inquire about a job with James’s urging. But her dependence on James, and specifically on his simply being there, grows to unsustainable levels. Her obsession takes over and spirals out of control. McKeon effectively and maddeningly captures this crescendo of thoughts until Catherine finally acts, with devastating consequences.
In Catherine, McKeon has created a sympathetic character who resonates with anyone who can remember trying to find his or her way during the first few years after high school. She questions herself. She feels misunderstood. She feels inferior. And then James comes along and he understands everything. And her confidence grows, even as James’s own circumstances leave him oppressed. In captivating fashion, McKeon demonstrates how that understanding and connection between two people can get out of control, how clinging to one thing and one thing only can lead to disaster. This story is riveting. I did not begin Tender thinking I was about to read a riveting story about friendship, but James and Catherine’s relationship continually builds with emotion and intensity and uncertainty, and for Catherine, at least, fear. B+ — Jeff Mucciarone