This is more a set of scattered impressions than a review. I admired the book tremendously. The characterizations here are very strong--Ash's portrait of his depression was grueling to the point of being hard to read, but the book is extremely funny most of the time, so it (mostly) doesn't become too much. The writing of the Essex--dialect I'll have to call it-- was also brilliant, probably some of the best dialect writing I've come across.
Hall is an incredibly gifted writer--the closest comparison in M/M I can think of is Harper Fox. He has a gift for gorgeous metaphors and memorable phrases. Within the context of the story it makes sense; Ash is a writer, an Oxbridge type and Scrabble player, with a strongly literary temperament. But the "good writing" is also almost too much. There's a relentlessness to the impressiveness, where instead of one incredibly felicitous simile, Hall--or Ash--persistently gives us three or four. The effect ends up feeling neurotic, a symptom (and reinforcement) of Ash's endless self-absorption rather than straightforward impressive writing. The self-absorption is often charming and witty and brilliant, but it is also almost too much as well. I was on the fence over whether Ash's actions at the rehearsal dinner, and then the months and months it takes him to get his shit together and apologize, weren't totally unforgivable. The problem was reinforced by the narration. We do only ever get Ash's perspective, and much as I love Darian, and I really did love him, the narrative is structured so that he remains alien--a creature of spray-on tans, Nan's cottage pie, and Essex Fashion Week. We don't ever end up finding out that much about him.
Ash's mental illness, like his snobbery, were familiar--too familiar--my background is similar enough to his that I felt implicated in his flaws. I had no choice but to view Darian through Ash's eyes, and of course I wanted them to get back together, but without access to Darian's perspective or a real way of identifying with him, it was hard not to distrust Ash's logic, Ash's version of events as too self-serving. Even when he's in the depths of self-loathing and castigation, it still feels solipsistic. I realize it's a trap--he can't win because no matter how sorry Ash really is, he's the one doing the protesting.
But asking Darian to forgive that much risks making us think that either Hall is stacking the deck in Ash's favor, or that he secretly thinks that Darian should feel lucky that Ash is in love with him since (when all is said and done) Ash is so much smarter and classier. I don't really think Hall thinks that--and he made great use of the tattoo scene as a very unexpected but successful redemption moment for his flawed hero. But he took a big risk making Ash such an incredible wank, and it would have ruined the book if there was even the slightest hint that Darian should feel lucky that Ash came back for him.
But there was the tattoo scene. I gave the book five stars because I think Hall succeeded. That I found these issues can be taken as a measure of my engagement, not just with the characters and romance, but with the narration, with the writing, with Hall's sheer talent. I truly loved reading this book, even with the pain and the uncertainty. Hall took risks in making his hero such a bloody mess, but people are messy and Ash knows better than anyone that no amount of gorgeous art can tidy them up.
Note added 12/10: According to a note from Hall, Darian's character was loosely inspired by X-factor contestant Rylan Clark. For Americans like me who had no previous associations with the word "Essex" (or X factor) and had never heard its apparently quite distinctive accent, I highly recommend checking out this footage of Clark, who really does come off as a sweet, irrepressible guy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWsOBJZmJfw