The New Normal
L.J. Hayward’s action-packed, sexy romantic suspense Death and the Devil series is one of my absolute favourites, and if you’re a fan of the genre and haven’t read it, then you’re missing out big time. Having loved those books for many reasons, not least of which were the strong characterisation, dialogue and writing, I eagerly picked up the author’s newest release, The New Normal, which is her first foray into contemporary romance and book one in her Gold Coast Collage series, set in and around the Australian city of the same name. It’s an engaging, well-written story featuring a group of long-standing friends in their mid-twenties that asks the question – what happens to a friendship that’s lasted for two decades when one friend tells another – his best friend and housemate – that he’s in love with him?
Andrew Fitzroy and Brian Stagliano have been best friends for almost all their lives and, now in their mid-twenties, they share a house and a Russian Blue, called either Schrodinger (according to Brian) or Archimedes (according to Andrew). Brian, a junior doctor, is about to start his Accident and Emergency rotation at the local hospital, and Andrew works for a construction company; they’ve got a great group of friends, two of whom have recently announced their engagement, and best of all, Andrew has just got the all-clear from cancer. The last couple of years have been tough, but Brian was there for him through all of it, with him at every appointment, driving him to and from surgery and every chemo session, recognising the resulting depression and helping him through it. Andrew has come out the other side and is doing really well. Life is good.
But a night out takes a weird and unexpected turn when Andrew gets plastered and, on the way home, tells Brian he’s in love with him. Brian tries to shrug it off, but Andrew is adamant. He doesn’t just love Brian as a friend, he’s IN love with him. Brian is completely blindsided and has no idea what to do with that – and the next few days pass awkwardly as he and Andrew either deliberately avoid seeing each other, or avoid talking when they can’t avoid each other. But Andrew’s declaration sets Brian thinking. He’s never questioned his sexuality; he doesn’t really do casual sex, but he’s had a couple of girlfriends in the past, and while he may not have been in love with them, they were good friends and he cared about them and enjoyed their company. Andrew, however, is a different matter entirely. The more Brian thinks about it, the more he realises that what he feels for Andrew is nothing like the way he felt about his girlfriends… or anyone, really. Plus, when he looks at him – really looks at him – Brian starts to realise that while Andrew is, objectively, an attractive man, the attraction he’s feeling is far from objective. He really is attracted to his best friend, and Andrew’s declaration of love is (kind of) the permission he’d needed to let himself go there.
Once Brian admits that he wants Andrew, things move fairly quickly, and they embark on a sexual relationship but agree to keep things under wraps for now. Andrew has known he’s bisexual for a while; even though he’s only ever slept with women and hasn’t explored his attraction to men (over the last few years, he’s had other things to worry about), so he’s had a little longer to come to terms with his sexuality, while it’s all new to Brian, who is trying to sort things out in his head while also keeping his head above water on his incredibly stressful A&E rotation. Things are really good between them; the sex is fantastic, Andrew loves him and Brian… well, he’s not exactly sure what he feels but it’s working for them and he doesn’t want it to end. But Brian is the sort of person who worries himself into a panic and is forever second-guessing himself about the things that really matter to him, and this thing with Andrew is sending that impulse into overdrive. He’s struggling to find his sexual identity, and finds it difficult to accept that he’s lived twenty-six years and never suspected he was anything other than straight, and he wants – needs – to be sure of it before he can commit fully to Andrew.
Further complications are caused by their friendship group when one of them jumps to an unwelcome conclusion about Brian (which confuses him even more) and by an uncomfortable situation Andrew finds himself in at work when he’s singled out for attention by the architect who designed the homes he’s working on. (As an aside, I never quite understood why Andrew, who had been training to be an architect before his diagnosis, opted not to return to the career he so obviously loved; the reasons given are vague and made no sense to me.) We also follow Brian at work as he finds his footing in A&E; he wants to make a career in emergency medicine, so a lot is riding on his making his rotation a success, and I appreciated being shown something of both their lives outside of their relationships with each other and their friends.
When it comes to the secondary characters, I really liked Michael, one of Brian’s more senior colleagues, who is encouraging and supportive, and Sean, the phlebotomist who becomes a friend and confidante, and helps Brian figure a few things out. Andrew’s colleague, Terri, is a no-nonsense, kickboxing, part-Filipino woman (and one of a small group of female construction workers) who took him under her wing when he first joined the crew.
In fact, I liked Michael, Sean and Terri more than I liked Brian and Andrew’s long-time friends. They play a large part in the story, and actually at times, I felt it was too large a part, as their drama takes the focus away from what’s going on with Brian and Andrew, and I confess I had to force myself to concentrate on the scenes featuring them which didn’t relate directly to the romance.
Apart from that, however, I enjoyed The New Normal, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a new contemporary romance author to try. The central characters are well-drawn and easy to like, there’s plenty of humour and steam, and I appreciated that the relationship between Andrew and Brian didn’t change a great deal once they made the transition from friends to lovers; their feelings for one another have always been anchored in deep affection and understanding, and adding a sexual element to their already loving relationship only enhanced what was already there. For a first contemporary romance, it’s pretty good, and I’m keen to see what the author comes up with next.