Book Reviews

Second Son by Robert Ferro at ReQueered Tales

Genre Gay / Historical / Recent (1980s) / Fiction
Reviewed by ParisDude on 02-May-2022

Book Blurb

Mark Valerian, the second son in the Valerian family, is ill, but determined to live life to the fullest--and live forever if he can. When he discovers Bill Mackey, a young theatrical designer who is also suffering from this disease neither wants to name, he also finds the lover of his dreams.

Together they develop an incredible plan to survive that will take them to Europe, to rustic Maine, and finally to the wonderful seaside summer mansion of the Valerian family, where father and son confront the painful ties of kinship...and the joyous bonds of love.

Originally published in 1989, it was Ferro’s final novel, completed in the months leading to his death from AIDS as he cared for his lover Michael Grumley. This new edition contains a foreword by Tom Cardamone (
Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book).


Book Review

Robert Ferro, whose novel ‘The Blue Star’ I reviewed on this site some time back (, was part of the famous if short-lived gay male writers’ circle known as The Violet Quill—apart from Ferro and his lover Michael Grumley, it included Christopher Cox, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, George Whitmore, and Felice Picano (of whose books five reviews can also be found on this site). ‘The Second Son’ was Ferro’s last novel, which he finished in 1988, mere weeks before his death. Another almost forgotten gem ReQueered Tales had the excellent idea of republishing, and certainly one of the most beautiful and thought-provoking books I’ve read these last months. If I wanted to sum up why it should interest today’s readers, I’d say it’s a magnificent novel about a young man who knows he’s dying of AIDS… written by a young man who knows he’s dying of AIDS (literally, as Ferro did succumb to the disease shortly after and had already been forced to bury his lover).


The story’s main character is Mark Valerian, a thirty-something interior designer slash garden artist (in the vaguest of senses). After his mother’s death and after being diagnosed with HIV, he moves into the extensive family beach mansion in Cape May (New Jersey, I think?), where he spends his time taking care of the gardens, overseeing necessary repair works, and welcoming his remaining family members (his father, successful self-made business mogul George, his older brother George Junior, his two sisters, plus aunts, nieces, and one nephew, little George III) whenever they have time to drive over from Philadelphia. This beach mansion becomes somewhat of an obsession to him, all the more so as his father and older brother want to sell it, the sooner the better, a project he resists with all his might. During a professional stay in Rome, Italy, Mark makes the acquaintance of young, well-off Bill, who confesses he’s sick, too. The two young men fall in love and move into the beach mansion together when they return to the US. All seems relatively romantic until Bill has to be hospitalized with a serious bout of pneumonia…


I found this time-travel back to the gruesome late 80s with their thousands upon thousands of deaths in the gay community both heart-breaking and… fascinating? Encouraging? Hard to find the right words, here. In fact, I expected a sombre tale of a young man dying, and I found a forceful, strong story of a young man asking questions, fighting, mulling things over, sometimes despairing, sometimes hoping, but never stopping to live and love. All right, Mark is if not wealthy, at least rich enough not to need to work. He dwells in a fanciful house he loves, he meets a man he learns to love, too, and he can count on the support of some of his siblings. But the story is set at the end of the 80s, where everyone knew that being diagnosed with HIV was a short-term death sentence. So, I was really surprised to notice that Mark’s illness was only one of the subjects of the novel, and that Ferro, despite knowing that he was probably living his last months, was capable of lending so much strength, so much positivity to the characters and to the story.


Like Ferro’s other books, one of the main subjects of this one is the American middle class family and how it turns out to be more a pipe dream than some harmonious reality. A few disruptive elements are enough to make the bubble of that ideal burst and show all the undercurrents and hidden family dynamics in if not a cruel, at least a stark light. Ferro sets to work with a scalpel, not cruelly, but with astonishing insight and honesty, the skilful, energetic writing cutting into the flesh of the characters and laying bare their true selves as well as their aspirations. The first disruption Ferro throws into the Valerian family’s path is Mark’s being gay. Then the mother dies, which is followed simultaneously by Mark announcing his diagnosis and his father finding out his plan of selling the successful family business to a competitor has been called off. Finally, Bill is brought in, and no one can keep up the pretense that all is well any longer. These simple plot developments allow the author to skilfully dissect the interactions of the remaining family members, with the beach house like a shining symbol of what Mark believed to have been their family when everything was still “intact”.


The writing may feel a bit dry or detached from time to time, but I discovered that I was pulled in right from the start and astonished by the often bleak sincerity. As the different characters were shown and analyzed, I started to see them like real persons, not like fictional characters. By the way, one secondary character (Mark’s best friend, who’s living in Florida) reminded me a lot of someone else—I’m not entirely sure but suspect Ferro tried to portray one of his writer friends, Andrew Holleran (I found the similarities between that character and the first-person narrator of Holleran’s upcoming novel, which I’m also currently reading and will soon be reviewing on this site, a bit too blatant to be a coincidence). Anyway, I really recommend ‘Second Son’, not only because it’s part of our cultural heritage and a great example of what is commonly called “AIDS literature”. But also for its literary qualities as well as the wonderful and heart-wrenching love story between Mark and Bill, which, although only being a subplot, was what made the book so beautiful to me (shoot me, I’m a helpless romantic).




DISCLAIMER: Books reviewed on this site were usually provided at no cost by the publisher or author. This book has been provided by ReQueered Tales for the purpose of a review.


Additional Information

Format ebook and print
Length Novel, 241 pages
Heat Level
Publication Date 15-March-2022
Price $5.95 ebook, $16.95 paperback
Buy Link