Book Review: Underneath the Whiskey
Underneath the Whiskey
By Chelsea Lauren
Chelsea Lauren is a wonderful young author (I think she's about the same age as me, which is cool) who runs a blog about "learning to love you." She cares a lot about de-stigmatizing mental illness, helping people overcome addictions, promoting positive self-esteem, and supporting the LGBT community. I would highly recommend checking out her blog here--she writes a lot of amazing, positive, supportive things that can help everyone through difficult times! Chelsea also featured me on her blog last week with this interview & these reviews of the Furever Home Friends books, so I'm super excited to review her first book on my blog!
Underneath the Whiskey tells the story of Ben Jacobson, a twenty-nine-year-old man whose life looks perfect from the outside. Ben owns a chain of successful coffee shops; he has a beautiful, ambitious wife who loves him; and he has two adorable children who are his entire world. On the inside, however, Ben is suffering from severe depression and a crippling alcohol addiction, which threaten to destroy his entire life.
Then Ben meets Caden, who turns everything upside down. Caden is the new manager at one of Ben's coffee shops, and Ben's instant attraction to him reawakens his worries that he might be gay. Back in college, Ben had a relationship with a man, realized he was gay, and decided to break up with his long-time girlfriend Sophia. However, before he could break up with her, Sophia announced she was pregnant, so he decided to stay with her and repress his feelings for other men.
In an attempt to get rid of these feelings, Ben went to one of those anti-gay therapy programs, where he was given shocks when shown pictures of men, as a way to condition him to associate men with pain. As a result, Ben still has PTSD-like flashbacks to this ordeal.
Realizing that he can never be "cured" of being gay, Ben starts an affair with Caden, which jeopardizes his relationship with Sophia. He doesn't want to divorce Sophia because he wants to keep his family together--he doesn't want his kids to grow up with divorced parents, and he doesn't want Sophia to try to take the kids away from him. All of this pressure causes Ben to start drinking again, leading him to destroy his relationships with everyone in his life, and eventually attempt suicide. After recovering from his suicide attempt, Ben goes to rehab, where he learns to take control of his life again.
|Chelsea Lauren, author of Underneath the Whiskey|
In a lot of ways, Ben is a terrible person throughout the novel--he cheats on his wife, lies to his kids, and, after drinking too much, becomes physically violent with Caden. The story's told from Ben's perspective, and every time he made another decision that was going to make everything worse, I kept wanting to shout, "No! Don't do that!" In a way, the reader watches as a man completely destroys his own life. At the same time, Ben is a sympathetic character. Ben's flashbacks to conversion therapy, plus the glimpses into his very relatable struggle with depression, make the reader feel bad for him, and want to see him turn his life around. There was actually one point in the novel where Ben does something completely unforgivable, and I thought there was no way I could side with him again. But, as only a really skilled writer can do, Chelsea takes us further inside Ben's head as he falls apart, and makes us want him to get better, completely turning our expectations around.
Sophia is the same way. She's the one who pushes Ben to attend conversion therapy, in the interest of keeping their family together, so in that sense, it's really easy to hate her. At the same time, when you look at the scenes of her struggling to raise the kids while Ben is out cheating on her, plus manage her demanding full-time job, it's easy to sympathize with her. Underneath the Whiskey did an amazing job of capturing human complexity, and showing how we can all be protagonists and antagonists--both to ourselves, and to others--in different situations.
Occasionally, though, I didn't understand Sophia's motivation. It's clear that the conversion therapy Ben attends is at least somewhat religious, because they teach him the line "being gay is a sin." That's a belief that, nowadays, even a lot of devoutly religious people wouldn't agree with--you'd have to be very, very committed to your religion to be willing to shock another person because of something that you believe is "a sin." So I was confused about whether or not Sophia had any religious motivation, because she was never shown to have any kind of religious background or beliefs at all. I totally understand that the author may have not wanted to portray religion negatively, since religion is a wonderful thing for a lot of people. However, she maybe could've negated that by having religious options at the rehab facility. I'll stop with all of this rambling now; I didn't write the book. Chelsea did, and she did an amazing job.
Now I'm going to talk about what I loved about this novel more than anything: the positive way it portrayed rehab, therapy, and the healing process. As someone who has dealt with mental illness, I'm a huge advocate for people finding help when they need it. This applies to people with substance addictions as well. Ben is struggling as an alcoholic, which takes a huge toll on all his family and friends. Sometimes, when we have an alcoholic in our lives, it's easy to cut them out until they can overcome their addiction. But people often require a lot of help to accomplish this, which is why I loved Luke as a character. Luke basically forces Ben into rehab after Ben attempts suicide.
As a complete contrast to the way Chelsea showed the dark, scary setting of conversion therapy, she shows rehab as a bright, encouraging place where people can heal. While at rehab, Ben undergoes detox, and regularly meets with a psychologist. Even though rehab is portrayed positively, it's not unrealistic--we still see how much Ben struggles to overcome his addiction and regain control of his life.
When he leaves rehab, he's more confident in himself, and ready to make amends with the people in his life. Chelsea did a wonderful job of showing this realistically, as well. Ben's (now ex) wife Sophia doesn't want to forgive him, and they struggle working through their divorce.
Overall, I think this book is wonderful, and everyone should read it. It does a great job maintaining realism, but at the same time, shows how important it is to get help when you're struggling with illness or addiction. Though Ben still has obstacles to face when he gets out of rehab, he's in a much better place than before. He's now comfortable with his sexual orientation, and he no longer drinks. Those are huge steps.
There are tons of people I'd recommend this book for. People struggling with depression, people afraid to come out as LGBT, people who have suffered from (or know someone who has suffered from) drug/alcohol addiction...the list goes on.
I can't stress enough how much I appreciate Chelsea's message in this book, which is that no matter how far you've fallen, you can still overcome anything and become a better person. I spent years of my life struggling with mental illness, sometimes ruining personal relationships because of it. Likewise, I've known (and been close to) lots of people who have struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, and have destroyed relationships as well. This book will give you hope that no matter what someone has done in their past, everyone has the potential to be better.
I do highly recommend that everyone read this book, because the world needs more books that encourage people to get help when they're struggling, and that portray addicts not as criminals, but as people with an illness (and the potential to be so much more than that illness).
Thank you so much to Chelsea Lauren for writing this book.
I hope that, if you choose to read this book, you enjoy it.