Belinda McKeon’s ‘Tender’ Restores the Specificity of a Relationship Pop Culture Loves to Stereotype

Belinda McKeon’s second novel, Tender, concerns a type of contemporary relationship pop culture loves to depict but can never seem to resist catastrophically oversimplifying: a close friendship between a gay man and a straight woman.

On film and especially TV, we meet countless pairs like this. They are “besties” who shop together and dissect each other’s romances over boozy brunch, the female half of the duo taking immoderate pleasure in the titillating details of her friend’s (many) sexual encounters while he savors her (exaggerated) chastity or (chronic, general) haplessness. When they’re drunk, which is most of the time, he gets handsy with her — and she protests loudly while not-so-secretly enjoying the attention. In certain egregious examples, she even refers to him as “my gay,” while he addresses her using any number of kicky, misogynist slurs.

If the Will& Grace era fused these characters into a single noxious stereotype, Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner’s recent Hulu series, Difficult People, has proven that stereotype is now so stale it’s impossible to revisit it without adding a layer of self-aware darkness. What McKeon does in Tender is something far more refreshing, though. Her story of Catherine and James asserts the dignity of a relationship that has always been condescended to and diminished, surely in part because it makes the heteropatriarchy nervous, by treating both characters like discrete people rather than complementary caricatures — and depicting their friendship, love, codependence, and heartbreak in excruciating detail.

Tender commences in and around Dublin during the summer of 1997, a time when it was possible for a girl from rural Ireland to matriculate at Trinity College without ever having encountered a queer person. We meet Catherine and her best friend James while she’s visiting him at his parents’ house, a reunion facilitated by lies and necessitated by pure mutual yearning. Though writing in third person, McKeon sticks almost suffocatingly close to her heroine’s perspective; within the first few pages, we are plunged into Catherine’s consciousness, immersed in what we immediately recognize as her immersion in James:

He had the reddest hair of any boy Catherine had ever known, which was probably down to the fact that, until James, she had had such a dislike of red-haired boys that she had not even wanted to look at them, let alone talk to them. They made her think of misery, somehow; of small houses and V-neck jumpers and of that helpless, defeated look that came over the faces of some children in primary school when the teacher was humiliating them and there was nothing the child could say or do to change this. She had not articulated this to James, actually, this association; she thought now, as she watched him duck down under the archway of roses, that she must say it to him, that we would find it fascinating, would find it, probably, quite clever, quite funny. Analyzing it, picking it apart, he would make it, of course, much funnier still. And what’s so offensive about V-neck jumpers? she imagined him asking, and she laughed in anticipation of it, hugging herself a little with the pleasure of it, so that James looked at her suspiciously now, his lips pursed in a manner that set her laughing harder still.

Catherine is too callow, at this point in her life, to make sense of her feelings for James — feelings she’s experiencing for the very first time. For the reader, though, all the telltale signs of infatuation are present, and rendered with rare precision: the way you save your best observations for the object of your affection and conduct imaginary conversations with them when they’re not around. Tender captures how a serious crush makes us orient our whole selves around another person without even realizing that’s what we’re doing, how we are constantly thinking about that person’s very essence and the varying extents to which it mirrors and complements and enlarges our own. “They were so alike, the two of them, so alike in every way — and yet, there were moments when she saw the ways in which they were so different,” McKeon writes. “And [Catherine] did not like those moments.”

Soon enough, we backtrack to the morning James comes into her life: she has been renting the room he vacated in Dublin, in a flat with two female friends, after moving to Berlin to assist a famous photographer. When he comes to visit his former home and she’s the only one in the apartment, initial awkwardness gives way to accelerated intimacy. They part for the first time at a train station, where she is compelled to play him Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” — she needs him to listen to it with her, holding her headphones between them. There’s clearly a sense of urgency about James’ feelings for Catherine, too, though there’s something off about their physical but not sexual affection for each other.

It’s not so hard to guess, before he delicately reveals it to her, that all this confusion originates from the fact that James is gay. And though the broad shape their story takes in the 300 pages that follow his confession isn’t unique, McKeon tells it with aching specificity, her exquisite long sentences registering every subtle shift in their dynamic. By confining itself to Catherine’s increasingly insensible point of view, Tender preserves the emotionally (and physically) heightened experience of young love and first heartbreak, despite all the magical thinking (and alcohol) it takes for her to finally get him into bed. The book becomes a time bomb as soon as Catherine’s love for James and the impossibility of him feeling the same way about her are both apparent, but it’s the care with which McKeon manages that explosive, the details of how and when and why it finally detonates, that give the story its devastating force.

Through all of it, Catherine and James — like every straight woman and gay man, with the possible exception of those who take their social cues from television and force their “besties” to play along —  are utterly discrete people, as distinct apart as they are together. She’s an earnest, innocent budding poet, a romantic slowly cultivating both talent and confidence. And he’s a photographer who is more comfortable taking pictures than seeking out romance; though James is charming and loquacious, some mix of parental disapproval, societal threats, and inborn pessimism prevent him from trying to escape his loneliness. What brings them together is the compatibility of their personalities, not the combination of his sexuality and some sort of biological predisposition, on her part, to becoming a “fag hag” (a risible term that, tellingly, takes a few hundred pages to make its first appearance).

What’s remarkable about Tender is how its very structure and perspective defy the assumption that it’s depicting something exotic — a relationship that defines, rather than being defined by, the people in it. McKeon insists, without drawing attention away from the characters themselves, that a love story is still a love story, that the obsessive thoughts and chemical reactions are just as real, when the object of infatuation isn’t capable of reciprocating. This even applies to romances frustrated by something other than a supposedly hard boundary like incompatible sexual orientations. (If you don’t see any of your own unrequited passions here, you surely led a charmed adolescence.)

But there’s so much more going on in the book, too. Tender pulls together friendship and love and sex and politics and coming of age and finding one’s calling in one messy bundle that resists all easy labels besides, possibly, “youth.” Like the title, that word has many meanings, and every single one of them is tied to a sensation.