"Leaving Normal" - Stef Ann Holm - 2005

I have never read Stef Ann Holm before, but “Leaving Normal” was on my looking for list, has a very cute cover, and just so happened to be in my TBR pile.  I had pretty high expectations, and started out enjoying this story of a reluctant divorcee resisting a relationship with a strapping younger man.  True, the story felt like half “Anyone But You” (Jennifer Crusie) and half “Just One of the Guys’ (Kristin Higgins) since the hero is a full-time fire fighter.  The heroine, Natalie a young looking 43, thinks she’s feeling hot flashes, and no, not the sexy kind, and has an 18 year-old daughter off at her first year of college.  When we meet Tony, he’s Natalie’s neighbor living with his wife and young step-daughter. That’s right, I said wife.  So, you know things have to change pretty quickly.  The progression of Tony and Natalie’s relationship feels pretty believable, despite all the reasons it shouldn’t – so I kept chugging along. 

The more I read the less I liked the characters, their story, or the author.  There’s a too cute (and very transparent) secondary love story which takes place almost entirely at Target, and one scene of the daughter on her own at college, included merely to set up a later event.  Even in a story that is not 1st person POV, a jump like that is disorienting. 

Natalie and Tony get super annoying after they finally have sex, and Tony of course wants a baby of his own, but Natalie has been there and done that, plus she’s got her supposedly peri-menopausal uterus.   This major issue is tied up neatly, without much comment however in the epilogue. 

Now for my biggest problem with this book:  the conservative opinions of the author, such as waiting for marriage to have sex (the daughter, not the mother) and wanting marriage and a baby, in that order (the hero, the heroine already did that) there was a detrimental line referring to birth control as well.  It’s not really the values themselves that bother me, it’s the preachiness of it.   Then there was a moment that truly bothered me, and I should have stopped reading, but I wanted to see how far it would go.  Here’s the gay joke that appears on page 153. 

The hero did and said the following:

“He and Rob had taken this morning’s personal section of the newspaper and highlighted the men-seeking-men gay ads and left them on Walcroft’s bed.  It was juvenile, but damn funny watching his reaction.”
“You guy’s are a bunch of pussies.  You were looking at those ads for yourselves.”
 “Not me” the Captain denied.  “Tony”
“Bullshit.” Tony countered, grinning.  “If anyone is gay, it’s Gable.”

That was the MFing hero!  Very mature and open minded of you, I can’t wait for your HEA.  Now this 34 year-old man, we’re supposed to believe wants a mature older woman, just made a middle school joke (and if I don’t approve of it from middle school boys, then why would I want that in my romance novel?) 

 So, yeah, I didn’t like that at all. And honestly it soured my whole perspective on the rest of the book.   Turns out the best part about it was the cover.