I first discovered Alexis Hall’s books in December 2018, and spent the next month reading his entire back catalog, including Pansies. A couple of months ago, the audiobook for Pansies came out, so I dove right back into the story.
Alfie grew up as a local lad in South Shields, but left his hometown for university and a high-powered financial career in London. He also realized that he was gay during this interim, something that surprised his family and friends since he had always been such a stereotypical lad.
Don’t worry: we’ll begin to address the culture of toxic masculinity later, as it plays a prevalent theme in the book.
Anyway, Alfie is back in town for a wedding, and meets Fen at a pub. After they hook up, Fen reveals that they went to high school together, and Alfie used to bully him, and he’s appalled that Alfie didn’t even recognize him.
And that’s when Alfie realizes that he feels a genuine connection with Fen, and he needs to make amends for all the things he did as a boy, and prove to Fen that he’s not the same person that he was in high school.
Meanwhile, Fen is trying to run his late mother’s flower shop—emphasis on trying—and he’s struggling with it, but he refuses to give up. The last thing he needs is Alfie showing up and trying to help him, but Alfie is persistent.
The title is a play on words, of course: a pansy is a flower, and Fen owns a flower shop, but it’s also a pejorative for a gay man. As I mentioned, it’s hard for Alfie’s family and friends to believe that he’s a “pansy”, but that’s something they’re going to have to accept. Fen, however, is used to pejoratives, but Alfie isn’t. By virtue of his size and hyper-masculine presentation, Alfie doesn’t experience nearly as much homophobia as Fen. He doesn’t understand why Fen just accepts it instead of fighting back and this proves to be a source of tension between the two men.
Speaking of stereotypes, Hall turns one its head in a delightful scene in which Alfie—the total lad—makes an utter mess of a home improvement project and needs to be rescued by his father and brothers.
It would be irresponsibly glib to say that Alfie picked on Fen in high school because he liked him. However, there definitely appears to have been an undercurrent of resentment on Alfie’s part: Fen lived his life openly and didn’t care about what people thought of him, whereas Alfie struggled with feelings that he was too afraid to acknowledge. And certainly, that resentment played a role in Alfie’s treatment of Fen when they were younger.
But Alfie isn’t the same person as he was. He’s changed since he moved out of town, and that’s something he has to deal with: he still looks the same, but he isn’t the same person anymore, and that proves to be a bit of a challenge when he returns to his hometown. Sure, his friends are older, but aside from that, not much has changed.
Alfie and Fen have amazing chemistry together, and their romantic arc was quite the roller coaster of emotions. I don’t want to imply that there’s melodrama afoot, but it’s certainly not a case of insta-love proceeding directly to HEA. Not only does Alfie have to make amends, but he needs to prove that his feelings are genuine and his interest in Fen is not part of the reparations process.
As I mentioned, I recently listened to the audiobook of Pansies. I’d been looking forward to it ever since I listened to the audio version of Glitterland, another Hall book that features a character with an Essex accent. Even when one is familiar with the accent; it’s one thing to read it, but it’s quite another to hear it. Pansies takes place in South Shields, which is a Geordie accent rather than Essex, but the principle remains the same: narrator Cornell Collins did a wonderful job with the regional accent that plays a fundamental role in the story.
I would absolutely recommend Pansies. Technically, this is the fourth book in Hall’s Spires series, but the books are only loosely connected and don’t even feature the same characters, so you can read the books in any order. This was such a lovely story, and I know I’ll be revisiting it in the future.