Real Men Knit
by Kwana Jackson
May 19, 2020 · Berkley
Real Men Knit is a contemporary romance set in Harlem. Mama Joy was the owner of Strong Knits, one of the few older Black-owned small businesses in Harlem. She was also the foster mother to Jesse, Noah, Lucas, and Damian, and mentor and mother-figure to Kerry, all of whom are now adults. When Mama Joy dies, Jesse and Kerry decide to try to keep the store open as a tribute to Mama Joy and because the store serves as something of a community center. That’s pretty much the whole plot – this is a character-focused book and is all about the romance between Jesse and Kerry, as well as the importance of family, friendship, and community. Also there’s a lot of knitting.
CarrieS is not a knitter and Shana is, but we both felt that we would give, as Shana put it: “the cozy yarn store that makes you want to curl up with cute boys and their knitting an A+”. Alas, we were both underwhelmed by the actual plot. This is the story of Jesse and Kerry having pants feelings as they renovate and reopen Strong Knits together, while she prepares Jesse to run the store on his own. He’s an aimless fuckboy, and baby brother of his family, but inheriting the yarn store has given his life a sense of focus. Now that Jesse’s spending all his time with Kerry, he realizes how important she is to him, and notices how hot she looks in her overstretched knit tops and cutoffs. But his skeptical brothers barely trust him to manage the store, and he’s not sure why Kerry would want to date him.
Meanwhile, Kerry is tired of being the invisible, responsible yarn store employee with the secret crush on her boss’s son. She’s recently graduated from college, and was planning on turning her summer teaching job into a full-time gig. But she can’t abandon Strong Knits or Jesse Strong just yet. They only have a few weeks to turn the beloved, but struggling, store into a hip knitter’s paradise. Maybe it’s time for a quick fling with the boy she’s always wanted, if she can get him to notice her with so many other girls hanging around.
CarrieS: Full disclosure – I’m not a knitter, but I loved this concept so much, and because my mom knits I’ve had the opportunity to see how knitting stores play a much larger role in a community than selling yarn (such pretty yarn!). I loved this concept especially since Jesse and his brothers all knit, and there’s a lot of discussion about alternatives to toxic masculinity. The store comes across as a real place with real business struggles, which I appreciated.
Shana: I just started knitting a few months ago, and I’ve been missing hanging out at my local yarn store. I loved the way Real Men Knit celebrated knitting culture and made knitting feel integral to the story. Jesse is a beautiful man who has been the recipient of many handmade gifts from local girls, so when he knits a complicated project for Kerry, it melts her heart. Some of my favorite secondary characters were the Old Knitting Gang, a “senior knitting circle” who always know the neighborhood secrets, and freely share their entertaining opinions on Jesse and Kerry’s burgeoning relationship. I adored the way both Jesse and Kerry talked about how knitting had impacted their lives, and Jesse’s appreciation of Kerry’s hands while knitting. This is probably the first time I’ve thought of winding a yarn ball in a remotely sexual way.
As much as I loved the setting of Strong Knits, I had trouble getting into this book. Since it’s so character-driven, there are many long internal monologues and flashbacks—especially in the beginning, that left me craving more dialogue. Once Kerry and the boys started talking together the pace picked up, and I was sucked into the story. This book really shines when characters interact, and we get fun dialogue peppered with wry observations. I just wish we could get there sooner and spend less time in the main characters’ heads.
Kerry works at a community center, and some of my favorite moments in the book involved her coworkers, including the comic relief from her sex-starved friend Val, and her underqualified boss Allison, a White woman who wears her hair in box braids.
CarrieS: I felt like both Jessie and Kerry, but especially Jesse, were sometimes too immature and too caught up in their own emotional issues to pull off a real relationship. I got frustrated with both of them and their mutual inability to communicate. They had great sexual tension and great sex, but I don’t think either character has the emotional maturity for a real, long-lasting relationship. Honestly, I wanted Kerry and Jesse to part as friends, spend a couple of years in therapy, and THEN get back together. Kerry’s main problem is an inability to communicate and Jesse’s is that he has spent too long being a little boy and he needs to grow the heck up, and I don’t think that happened by the end of the book.
Jesse is convinced that he can never amount to anything, plus he can’t decide what he wants and he second guesses himself constantly. Because of his life experiences and his recent loss, all of that makes sense, but it’s still frustrating to read. As Damian says,
“You’re the one who was all torn and confused in your thoughts, not sure if she was some sort of sister, girlfriend or surrogate mother figure.”
Ouch – and Truth.
Shana: Jesse was a tough hero for me to like initially. He’s the baby of the family, and he felt very young and insecure. He has great ideas for relaunching the yarn shop, and knows pretty early on that he likes Kerry. But he’s easily influenced by his brothers’ criticism, and it takes a long time for him to see himself as worthy of pursuing a relationship with Kerry. It sometimes felt like Jesse was in a Young Adult book, and he was Kerry’s little brother in her New Adult book. But, I started to appreciate Jesse when he stands up to some of the neighborhood boys who are bullying a young boy in his knitting class. Once I saw him in contrast to the children, his own behavior felt marginally less childish.
CarrieS: I had a big problem with the slut shaming. One reason his brothers look down on Jesse is that he sleeps around but doesn’t commit to any relationships. Meanwhile, Jesse and Kerry treat one of Jesse’s casual partners with disdain after she expresses an interest in a more serious relationship. Erika (the casual partner) treats Kerry with suspicion and jealousy but Kerry does the same to Erika. I’m not fond of Erika but I don’t see why she should be a villain for thinking maybe the dude she had sex with would want to date more, and I don’t see why Jesse having casual sex should be looked down on either.
Shana: I didn’t mind that he was so focused on casual sex, but he could barely remember his sex partner’s names, which didn’t endear him to me.
CarrieS: Yeah that was tacky. He did not treat his partners with respect.
What did you think about the brothers, and their role in the story? I liked the way their relationships not only highlighted the bonds of found family but also shows that a family can both support us in positive ways and label us in ways that can be damaging. I found it off-putting that they all seemed to be attracted to Kerry – it’s like they were just waiting in a line!
Shana: I agree, all of the brothers flirting with Kerry was very strange!
I’m looking forward to future books in the series, because I actually found the other brothers much more believable romantic partners, and more settled into their careers. I didn’t always enjoy the way they ganged up on Jesse, but their brotherly banter often made me laugh. Lucas, the firefighter, is playful but protective of his family, and who wouldn’t want a yarn-loving firefighting boyfriend? We didn’t see as much of Noah, but he seemed sensitive and artistic, and I love an emo hero.
CarrieS: Assuming all the brothers get a book, who should be next? I’m guessing Damian because he got a lot of page time.
Shana: Damian has this mysterious high-powered corporate job and living situation with a “roommate,” so I’m hoping that means we’ll get a m/m/f romance where he knits socks for his love interests. Have I been reading too many erotic romances? Probably.
CarrieS: I am 100% here for that!
This New York City yarn store sounds like a welcoming place to spend the afternoon, with strong secondary characters and a cozy setting that kept us reading. Sadly, Jesse and Kerry aren’t lovable enough main characters to make this a candidate for a reread. They both grow up during the book, but the main question in their relationship (do you like me? yes/no) could have been solved with a few minutes of honest conversation, or a note passed in class. Real Men Knit is a low-angst romance, and reading it was like being with a messy, comforting, and occasionally irritating, family.