Note from Natalie: Donna and I are absolutely delighted to have our very first guest post here at the Radish, by the inimitable Jessica from The Hypeless Romantic. Enjoy!
I had never heard of Bonnie Dee’s New Life, until a gift link appeared in my inbox, courtesy of a friend who thought I would like it. Well, she was right. New Life (Jan. 2013, self-published) is the love story of twenty-somethings Jason Reitmiller and Anna Stevens who meet in an office stairwell where new attorney Anna has taken teary refuge after a disastrous court performance. Jason, the building’s janitor, takes out his earbuds, turns off the floor buffer, and asks her if she’s ok. They have a sweet, funny, promising conversation, each aware of the other’s attractiveness. Later, they invent reasons to run into the each other — not easy, since Jason works second shift — and soon they are dating.
New Life has a somewhat unusual narrative structure: alternating first person perspectives. I happen to really enjoy first person, and this format gave me first person without the downside of never getting inside the other protagonist’ s head. It’s not gimmicky: no replaying scenes from one point of view and then another, and I enjoyed viewing the development of the romance from two different, but complementary angles.
There’s no good romance without a good conflict or three, and you can probably guess at one of them: differing class status. Early on, Anna refers to Jason dehumanizingly as “the janitor” and fears her employers’ discovery of her growing friendship with him: “The last thing I wanted was for anyone to see me flirting with the janitor.” Although Jason works for a janitorial service, not directly for the law firm, Anna’s colleague orders Jason to do a menial chore that isn’t within his job description. And, later in the book, Anna hesitates to introduce him to her parents as her boyfriend: “Everything about him from his appearance to his job proclaimed ‘underachiever’— the biggest taboo possible in my parents’ book.”
Jason has internalized the low status of his occupation. He can’t seem to tell anyone he is dating a lawyer without seeming to brag, and, mirroring the incredulous response this apparent romantic mismatch elicits, he frequently asks himself “Why in the world would a successful career woman be interested in a janitor?” But Anna’s romantic interest in Jason has, at the same time, the opposite effect: it helps him to see himself in a more positive light, to feel good about himself. And now we’ve come to a second barrier closely connected to Jason’s class status: he experiences a host of cognitive and physical disabilities as a result of a traumatic brain injury he sustained in a car accident.
If having a hero who is a janitor isn’t unusual enough, here’s a list of the challenges Jason faces: aphasia (difficulty finding the right word), motor (stiff hip and leg), memory (both short and long term), impulse control, vomiting when anxious, depressive episodes, headache, fatigue, sensitivity to light and sound, and self-image issues due to scarring on face and torso. It’s not hard to see how these challenges generate smaller conflicts, for example, when Anna suggests a loud dance club for their first date, or when Jason is reluctant to disrobe during sex.
If this were a less ambitious book, Anna’s love would fix all of Jason’s health challenges, and his class status would amount to a temporary barrier, much like “surprise nobility” in a historical romance. But Jason’s accident occurred three years prior to the start of the novel, and his disabilities are unlikely to disappear. Recovery is not the road his character needs to travel:
Anyway, that’s not the story I want to tell. Who really needs to hear about comas and thousands of hours of rehab? My story begins the night I was cleaning black shoe marks off the floor, which could be any night since my life became all about industrial cleaners and swabbing toilets. This particular night, I was buffing the corridor floor of the office building where I clean. I remember the Naked Farmers blasting through my headphones, when I saw a woman sitting in the stairwell, head down, shoulders hunched and shaking.
A third thing about Jason that is unusual in romance is, sadly, a potential deal breaker for many romance readers. He can behave badly. Without putting in a spoiler, I’ll just say quite badly, and you can picture both of my eyebrows raised as I do. I liked this, because the tendency to hold disabled heroes up as paragons of naive virtue is one not all romance authors have managed to avoid. Jason has little memory of his life prior to the accident (perhaps the least medically realistic feature of this portrayal of TBI, but very consistent with the literary genre), but discovers that he was not exactly a prince. One of the big challenges of recovery from TBI involves personal identity: is Jason the same person he was before the accident? If not, which Jason is the “real” one? If he acts impulsively, is that “Jason” or “Jason’s disability”, and how would he know? Questions of personal identity, and especially the question of his moral character, preoccupy Jason:
I can admit when I’ve been a dick. I just can’t seem to stop doing crap like that. It’d be easy to call it part of the impulse control issues brain-damaged people are prone to, but my little sister, Katie, will tell you I’ve always been a douche.
Later, he wonders, “Maybe I’m a jerk at the core.” But New Life raises the question, not just for Jason but for Anna, and for the reader, what is anyone’s “core”? Is acting out of character a sign of our hidden “true self” or a deviation from it? What part of any of us are the unique circumstances, luck, and other aspects of our lives we don’t fully control?
Although Jason’s disabilities are made manifest throughout the text (and, actually, that is one criticism I would make: he rarely acts without being described in a way that brings to light the challenges he faces), the novel consistently normalizes them, or at least places them on a continuum with the challenges anyone without a disability might face. For example, in their first meeting, Jason evidences his halting speech pattern, while Anna describes how she lost track of what she was saying in court and babbles. Jason has his lists (“repatterning”), but Anna engages in “life mapping”. Jason was only a 21 year old college student who had yet to shed his adolescent selfishness and lack of empathy when his life became focused on mere survival, then recovery. And although New Life is not marketed as “new adult”, the protagonists are younger than I tend to see in recent contemporary romance. They are both just starting out, experiencing their first intense adult romantic relationship, finding a career, and dealing with new financial and emotional independence from their parents. Although in some ways Jason’s journey is very unusual, in other ways his challenges are similar to Anna’s (especially apparent as Anna herself makes some impulsive and hurtful choices) and to any other 24 year old.
Eventually, the question of what part is core personality versus what part is brain injury becomes moot. Jason has to adapt, grow, and change if he wants to live a fully human life, which in a romance novel means developing a deep, meaningful romantic relationship. Many survivors of trauma would object to the way I framed the identity question in the last paragraph, insisting that identity is fundamentally relational, and that therefore rebuilding a self after trauma requires others to bear witness and to actively co-construct a new narrative. The way Jason’s relationship with Anna helps him grow in his other relationships — family, friends — is a testament to that idea.
Although there is a fairly high amount of conflict compared to happy moments in New Life, I think the author does a good job showing the attraction Anna feels to Jason. If the development of her romantic feelings aren’t portrayed as fully as I might have liked, that may be because in general the character of Anna takes a back seat to Jason. The first chapter gives hints of some of Anna’s solo struggles: imposter syndrome, the worry that she’s become a lawyer merely to get to the next rung on the ladder of her parents’ expectations, etc., but none of these bear fruit, and as a result, her character was developed almost entirely in terms of her relationship with Jason. Because I didn’t have as clear a sense as I wanted of who Anna is, I did feel that the HEA while believable, was not, as Jo Beverley once put it at a conference, triumphant.
But New Life was a very rewarding read, with interesting facets I have not even touched upon in this already too long review. True, New Life is not a light fluffy romance. And although the bedroom door stays open, those who seek a lot of sex scenes in their romance should look elsewhere. I often think there is a line of “realism” romances just can’t cross and still work as romances. New Life pushed this line further than I would have thought possible.