Stray, by Sheri Joseph, chronicles the story of Paul Foster, a talented young acting student still in love with his older ex-boyfriend despite the man being married; Kent McKutcheon, a talented musician, who must choose between his wife Maggie and his old flame Paul; and Maggie, Kent's wife and a devoted Mennonite, who must deal with her own feelings for Paul. This occurs as an investigation of the murder of Paul's much older lover goes on.
The book, if left to its own devices, could have been a touching story of three people trying to discover what love is, and how you can love someone and not know anything about them.
This was not that book.
The exposition of the story is more than likely the best part of the plot, detailing Paul and Kent's affair; Maggie's own struggle for peace as a public defender in the heart of Atlanta. Observant and insightful, the imagery and introspection within the characters' thoughts is delightful. While this reflection lasts throughout the novel, it slowly starts to lose energy by the end.
Though meaning well and hopefully trying to keep the book interesting, the author inserts a seemingly pointless murder and investigation into the plot. The one and only reason I can hope this aspect was added was to allow Paul's relationship with Maggie to blossom. However, if there is a murder in a story, utter predictability is not something most would aim for. A surprise ending might've helped save the plot from collapsing under its own weight.
Nearing the end, the plot seems to drag a little bit, as Paul is cleared of murder, and certain events occur that if revealed would more than likely keep the novel from being enjoyable. Loose ends are tied up a little too neatly, though you're still left feeling like nothing was really explained at all, and every main character is left unhappy and alone.
Joseph's characterization would've been impressive for a short story, but are not nearly fleshed out enough for a 444-page novel. She presses enough for the basest responses and seems to hope that would be enough. Kent's personality seems to be the only one who doesn't have the bad aftertaste of being a stock character. He could be called a tragic hero, a man who is beaten by forces beyond his control, though his own weaknesses don't help much.
Paul, while faintly likable, seems to be a glorified stereotype. Catty and manipulative, he personifies what most would assume a gay man would act like. His promiscuity and brush-off of his dying older lover make him hard to identify with as the story progresses. Half-hearted attempts to humanize him by mentioning an alleged rape attempt and faint, unexplained glimpses of his past life fall flat and only serve to show Paul's narcissism and licentious proclivities.
Maggie, whose kindness is shown in a scene where she deals with a mentally disturbed client and has enough of a backstory so her personality is easier to believe, several mentions of a past rape without any true explanation or emotional affectation make her mental state seem a bit off. She attempts to do good in an attempt to repent for her anger against her rapist. Perhaps to the Mennonites this makes sense, but to be honest I was lost in that part.
Various background characters are mostly one-dimensional and difficult to identify with. Paul's friends are the conventional club-kids, unfeeling and drug-addled. While Maggie's family seems to be a little more than one-sided, there isn't enough time to fully expose their characters.
A mediocre read, I had a hard time connecting with the characters despite its attempts at pathos. Not something I would read twice, and would be put quite low on my list.