Author ~ Alexa Land
Published ~ 23 August 2016
Genre ~ Contemporary M/M Romance
Zachary’s life is careening toward disaster.
At just 24, he’s had to do whatever it takes to survive, including selling his body, and the ways he’s found to escape from his bleak reality are destroying him.
On one of the worst nights of his life, Zachary meets TJ, a broken man with demons of his own. A former drug addiction and time in prison took him from his son Trevor at a young age and left TJ crippled with guilt. He thinks he can help Zachary though, not that he wants to be helped.
It takes hitting rock bottom for Zachary to reach out to TJ, the one person he thinks will understand. Neither is expecting the attraction that flares between them, not with their substantial age difference, and certainly not while drowning in a sea of pain and regret. In the process of healing, both begin to discover so much more than they ever dreamed possible.
But does love stand a chance between two lost souls who are convinced they’re damaged beyond repair?
Who I Used to Be is the twelfth book in Alexa Land’s best-selling Firsts and Forever series, but each book is written to stand alone, so jump in anywhere. This gay contemporary romance is approximately 113,000 words in length. It contains explicit language and graphic sex and is intended for adults only.
As if Zachary’s depression and social anxiety weren’t enough to deal with, there’s another potentially deadly problem he’s been hiding. At 24 he’s been on his own since 18 and life has not been easy. Although he has a home with friends now, he constantly worries that his bad decisions will cause them problems. TJ is 41 and has only recently been reunited with Trevor, the son he had at 17 and lost track of after going to jail when he was only a toddler. He mostly keeps to himself, working in his repair shop and trying not to be a burden on his son.
Zachary is in worse shape than he’ll admit when he lands on TJ’s doorstep. Though they’ve only briefly met before, TJ goes out of his way to help Zachary. They quickly connect and begin to form a friendship, but things get a lot worse for Zachary before he finally breaks and accepts the help and support TJ is offering. Although the two men seemingly would have nothing in common, it turns out that they share more than they can imagine. Similar backgrounds and experiences added to a bit of lust quickly make them the most important person to the other, but the road is going to be tough and saying anything more would spoil things.
You were everything I was looking for, and nothing I ever expected.
This is more of a slow burn romance than most of the prior books and it’s necessary to the story. Zachary quickly becomes attached, but TJ insists that things go slowly not just because of what Zachary is going through, but because he has his own issues and in part can’t believe that Zachary would want to be with him. There is such a sweetness about how these two introverted, quiet men fall in love and open up to each other and I completely fell for them both. There were a few small things that happened off-page that I would have liked to have seen, but the extent to which the two men bond and move forward is clearly played out and I think they may be one of the strongest couples in recent books.
I’ve been waiting for Zachary’s story since he was first introduced as Chance’s friend in book 9, Coming Home and with the hints that have come before, it’s no surprise that Who I Used to Be has a more serious tone than others in the series. It deals with a host of difficult subjects, not that Alexa Land hasn’t taken on serious issues before, but this had more of a quiet, introspective feel to it with a clear focus on TJ and Zachary. Even Nana was a bit subdued here, yet still managed to pull off a penis parade through a mall and “glamping” with a host of drag queens and the entire Dombruso posse. There is also still some development of minor characters from earlier books and since this was TJ and Zachary’s story, there was also the opportunity to get another look at how Trevor and Vincent, and Chance and Finn are getting along as well.
Although I know there is always a happy ending I still can’t help worrying about the fates of the characters as the story plays out. Alexa Land doesn’t provide a magic cure for the issues raised and just when it seemed things were settling down everything changed once again. They deal with their obstacles and move toward a happy future with realistic expectations, although the immense fortune at the disposal of the Dombruso clan and some other characters does help ease the way. While storylines get heavy, the story never gets too depressing and the Epilogue was absolutely beautiful. There is an enormity of love, support and humor that surrounds the men and is there for the taking once they allow themselves to do so.
I love the way Alexa Land seamlessly introduces new characters into each of these stories; how they are slipped in and quickly become a part of the group. Here we’re treated to several new men who play important parts in the lives of Zachary and TJ, including Murph, TJ’s friend and Zach’s counselor, Kai’s (The Distance) best friend Sawyer, and Zachary’s friend Gabriel. I’m always amazed at how quickly I come to care for these new players with even the briefest of teases about their life and I especially cannot wait to get more of both Sawyer and Gabriel.
I know I’m rambling a bit, but this series has been a favorite since I read the first book back in 2013. One thing I do miss is not knowing at the start who the love interest will ultimately be as there are always one or two prospects to start the story. While it is suggested that you could jump in here and read Zachary and TJ’s story (or any of the stories in the series) as a standalone, I think you would have a very hard time following all of the secondary characters that play parts even with the guide in the back of the book. Yes, the love story definitely is fully contained in this book, but your head may spin at the sheer number of other players involved.
This is a long story, but it never dragged for me. Alexa Land’s writing has grown more sure and polished over the years. She can bring me from laughs to tears in a matter of paragraphs. This is a series that has gotten stronger as it has gone on and a series that could seemingly go on for years with the way characters are introduced and incorporated. It has grown into an enormous, crazy family created out of love not necessarily blood and I can’t wait to see what will happen next.
Meet Alexa Land
Alexa Land is an independent author of gay fiction and romance. Her character-driven books include the best-selling Firsts and Forever Series, set in present-day San Francisco, which is currently at twelve volumes and counting. She was born in Southern California and has been on a gradual northern migration ever since, having lived in Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and now Oregon.