Earlier this year, I read your novel, Trust the Focus, and enjoyed it quite a bit. As someone who hasn’t read much adult M/M romance, your new adult equivalent ended up being an accessible entry point for me. In fact, I liked it so much that when I saw your next M/M NA novel, Focus on Me, on NetGalley, I clicked the Request button immediately.
Focus on Me opens with Colin, who was on a football scholarship to a California college but due to failing several of his classes, lost his academic funding and was kicked out. He’s making the cross-country drive to his family’s North Carolina home for the last time. At a Las Vegas gas station, however, he meets Riley, who’s hitchhiking his way to the Grand Canyon. On a whim, Colin decides to give him a lift. Risky? Sure. But the narrative acknowledges the dangers of both hitchhiking and giving rides to strangers – how can you be sure they’re not serial killers? – and that was enough for me. It also helped that Riley was desperate and Colin was in a fuck it all attitude. Wouldn’t you be if you failed out of college?
I thought the connection to the previous book was charming. In Trust the Focus, Landry pretends he has a boyfriend and uses pictures of a model as proof. Riley is that model. Is it a little tenuous that Landry would email Riley and apologize for using him as his fake boyfriend? Maybe. But it worked within the context of the novel.
The beginning of the book and me got off on the wrong foot. Because Colin assumes Riley is straight, and vice versa, I initially wondered if this was going to be a rehash of the previous book. I hate rehashes and I dislike misunderstandings even more. It’s not that I don’t understand relationship dilemmas experienced by gay people in a hetero-dominant world, but the automatic assumption on both their parts seemed forced to me. It could be just that I knew this was an M/M book so I knew they were both gay, but I think it was also the 100% certainty they both had that the other was straight that struck me as a little discordant.
But once the story settled into its groove, I got past that. Focus on Me isn’t a rehash. Colin’s family has known that he was gay since he was a child and have no problems with it. While Riley initially claims his issues with his parents have to do with his sexuality, the narrative does an excellent job foreshadowing that isn’t the case at all. They also realized the other was gay early enough to allay my growing fears of a continued misunderstanding plot.
What the plot does end up being about was something I hadn’t expected but I discovered, as I continued reading, was something I’d wanted to see explored in fiction for a long time. The following might be a little spoilery, but I think it’s important to discuss. Riley is mentally ill – he’s struggled with both depression and anorexia for a while. Based on his previous occupation (modeling) and his disordered eating habits, the anorexia is pretty obvious from the get-go. The depression, on the other hand, is not as immediately apparent, but as Riley’s problems escalate throughout the novel, the inevitability falls into place.
The reason why I thought this exploration is especially important is because it doesn’t use Riley’s depression and anorexia as convenient plot devices to induce angst and romance. Colin, as it turns out, has heavy caretaker tendencies so he thinks he can heal Riley’s problems with his love and care. It sounds like the all-too-popular hurt/comfort trope, right?
But it’s not. As their relationship unfolds, we see how the best of intentions can be toxic and enabling. The book doesn’t shy away from the fact that sometimes love is not enough. I thought Focus on Me dealt with that maturely – that Colin realizes Riley needs help he can’t give him and that sometimes helping the ones you love means breaking their trust.
I went into this book with no expectations. I’ve learned to moderate my hopes after the first book in a series wows me. Focus on Me didn’t disappoint. I thought this was a great romance that dealt with both what happens when your life plans go awry and what happens when you fall in love with someone who’s mentally ill and refuses to admit they need help. Looking forward to your next one! B