Desert Isle Keeper
Sometimes an author takes a risk, and has me hooked. This happened with Bonnie Dee’s new romance New Life, which features a hero with a mental disability. When I discovered that the first pages of the book were actually told from said hero’s point-of-view, my surprise doubled. Would it work? It did: The book proved as unique as it was delightful.
Actually the viewpoint is shared almost equally between Anna Stevens, an ambitious young lawyer, and Jason Reitmiller, who works as a janitor in Anna’s office building. Jason suffered brain injuries during a car accident caused by his own drunk driving while at college. He spent a long time in rehab, and although his parents are loving and fully willing to support him, he insisted on moving away from home and taking the janitorial job to gain some independence. Jason’s memory is unreliable, he speaks haltingly and sometimes has problems finding the right word. All in all he is content with his work as janitor, but he has some issues with social contacts. He has not dated at all since his accident, and although he attends a survivors’ group for therapy, he finds establishing openness and trust difficult. So his only friends at the novel’s start are some homeless guys in the park opposite the office building where he works.
One night, Jason discovers Anna, who he’s seen before but never spoken to, crying on the staircase and begins a conversation with her. He manages to both help her find her perspective again and make her laugh. A strong sexual attraction flares up immediately, but for both characters, this is something they wouldn’t expect to act on. For Anna, a relationship with a janitor is completely out of the question, while Jason believes she couldn’t possibly be interested in a disabled person like him. He contrives to talk to her again, however, and to her surprise Anna discovers she likes his sense of humor and down-to-earth attitude just as much as she fancies his body. Anna acquires a puppy, and this dog leads to further contact between Anna and Jason, until they begin a relationship.
Here is what I loved about the book: In spite of Jason’s handicap, the romance is one of the most natural I have read about in a contemporary in ages. Two young people meet, are attracted, talk, text, go to an outing in the park, have one botched date, end up in bed too soon and then try to take matters more slowly. There are no rules and long-term planning, no worrying about who mentions the L-work first. The same applies to the sex scenes: They flow. They are hot or tender or both, just as the story requires, and they never feel by-the-numbers.
Jason is a great character. At the beginning, his sense of self-worth is nil, and yet he tries to deal with the hand he has, in effect, dealt himself. He is awkward with people, but as the story unfolds, he opens up more – once with hilarious and heartwarming results, once with disastrous ones. And I should warn readers: When he falls, he falls deep, and the author takes an unflinching look at him at rock bottom.
His handicap is more told of than shown all in all, but here the author had to make a decision, and in my eyes she took the right one. We hear about Jason’s problems with speaking, and occasionally we come across them, but we are spared the effect of having every single sentence of his interrupted by several pauses, which would have made his utterances unbearable to read.
Anna is a very successful person, but she also full of self-doubt, mostly because of her over-achieving parents. All in all she needs to loosen up and open herself to the unexpected, and that’s an area where Jason can teach her a lot. While she does not stumble as badly as Jason does, she has her flaws, too, and they make her all the more likeable (although I did want to shake her at certain moments).
The ending is satisfying and plausible, with not all issues resolved but enough put on the right path to make me believe that Jason and Anna can have a future together. I am especially happy that the differences between the protagonists as regards social and financial status are not glossed over, but remain part of the picture. Acknowledging that, and being able to deal with it, shows Jason’s and Anna’s maturity. A second theme of the novel deals with friends and where you may find them, and this is also tied up in the ending very nicely.
So all in all New Life is a novel very much to enjoy if you like something different in your contemporary romance, and if you are not put off by flawed characters. Bonnie Dee tried something new here, and I can only wish her success with this novel so she may encouraged to write more in this direction.