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I know you’ll be shocked by this admission, but I’m not a hot, chiseled, tattooed, hairy-chested Marine. Nor, at my age, do I have any hope of attaining that goal. But don’t I deserve love too? According to the brace of romances I’ve read lately, I’m out of luck. But the guys in William Neale’s A New Normal are far more fortunate.
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Major Jake Vincenzo knows his nineteen-year-old son Mark is gay and in love with Cade, and that’s okay. Jake’s gay too. And in love with Cade as well. When Mark is unable to immediately attend a camping trip Jake has promised both the boys, he goes with Cade and confessions are made. Once Mark arrives, things get difficult, but that’s not the only difficulty Cade will encounter. His family doesn’t approve of either his choice of education or choice of mate.
I tried hard to like these people, I really did. But they’re soooooo perfect—perfect hearts, perfect bodies, perfect minds, perfect tattoos, perfect actions (even under difficult circumstances). Flaws are the building blocks of characters, and working through or overcoming them is what generates dramatic tension, making a static piece dynamic. These characters have none of the imperfections that provide for a commonality with the reader, rendering them unrealistic. Even when his love for his son’s best friend becomes intolerably apparent, Jake does the right thing. Always the right thing.
The structure of the book is also problematic. Neale spends so much time at the idyllic cabin in the woods letting us watch the boys frolic in the lake as Marine Dad cooks perfect meals that the set up for the ending is ignored, resulting in a rushed, anxious climax that would have been far more effective if built to with slow, deliberate tension. We know that Cade’s religious mother is a nutcase not because we see it, but because he tells us so. We should be allowed to discover this earlier for ourselves and let that simmer on the back burner so that the actions she takes at the end seem more an extension of her character rather than a plot device to move us towards a conclusion.
But Neale can certainly paint a pretty picture. The cabin in the woods is idyllic for a reason, and Neale really nails a fine sense of place in these passages. His dialogue is also realistic, if a bit altruistic at times—but that only fits. These people wouldn’t ever be anything else but.
I would love to see these characters twenty years on, when Mark and Cade are just beginning their forties and, perhaps, regretting swearing permanent devotion when they were nineteen. Would they feel the same way about each other? And how would Jake handle twenty years of frustration and “settling” for an old love when he could have taken his son’s man back in the day? Now, that would have been interesting.
Instead of so damn perfect.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler