First and First by Santino Hassell
Published by: Dreamspinner Press
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Reviewed by: Erin
What to Expect: 30-somethings trying to find their way in their world, social media, hot sex, stunning writing, a prickly pair, and even more hot sex.
Plot: Caleb Stone was raised on the Upper East Side, where wealth and lineage reigns, and “alternative lifestyles” are hidden. It took him years to come out to his family, but he’s still stuck in the stranglehold of their expectations. Caleb knows he has to build his confidence and shake things up, but he doesn’t know how… until Oliver Buckley enters the picture.
Oli is everything Caleb isn’t—risk-taking, provocative, and fiercely independent. Disowned by his family, Oli has made his own way in the world and is beholden to no one. After a chance encounter on New Year’s Eve, Caleb is smitten.
As Caleb sheds the insecurities that have held him back for years, he makes bold steps toward changing his career and escaping years of sexual repression. But for Caleb to take full control of his life, he has to be brave enough to confront his feelings and trust Oli with his heart.
First and First is the third book in Santino Hassell’s Five Boroughs series, featuring Caleb, David’s ex from the previous book, Sunset Park and Oliver, one of David’s friends. Caleb and Oli are acquaintances through David, and they have a very drunk one-night stand on New Year’s Eve that turns into…more occasional sex, then more frequent sex, and eventually a business partnership. Of course, they grow feelings along the way, but neither of them are about to admit that anytime soon.
Caleb is prickly and standoffish; he doesn’t think much of himself and he has a tendency to put others down and push them away before they can do the same to him. He’s uncomfortable with sex, having come out later in life, and is self-conscious about that. Oli likes having all kinds of sex with anyone of any gender, in any combination. He’s also prickly at time, running hot and cold in a way that confuses Caleb. It’s amazing they’re able to make it together at all, and their HEA is hard-earned by the end. The one part that didn’t always feel believable was how hard Oli worked to pursue Caleb in the beginning. I wasn’t entirely sold on why Oli was so drawn to him. I got over it, and YMMV, but I felt that Caleb had a lot to prove to me in terms of deserving Oli.
I did, however, believe their sexual chemistry. Is there a word stronger than chemistry? Sexual inferno? Sexual conflagration? The Hadron Collider of sexual tension? This book is so fucking hot, it’ll make your eyeballs sweat. Seriously. Read this book near a cold shower or a fainting couch.
One of the interesting things about Caleb and Oli’s relationship is that they were both raised in the same small, insular world of NYC’s elite ruling class. You don’t often see that kind of class parity in romance novels outside of some historicals; typically the billionaire shows up and rescues the penniless waitress, or the spunky kindergarten teacher shows the business mogul how to really appreciate his life. First and First shows us that money and power solve some things, but not everything, and can come with strings that are too confining to accept. I was concerned that I wouldn’t identify with these characters, but Hassell does a great job of pointing out their privilege as well as their pain, and makes them very relatable. The negotiations about money and business were fascinating, exploring financial intimacy in a way you don’t often see.
Side note: I was so impressed with how Hassell came up with a fictional social media site and business plan that sounded viable. That’s so difficult to do well. Hats off, man. So impressive.
I also loved that Caleb and Oli are a little older, in their mid-late 30s. This isn’t an NA novel, where college kids are figuring out how to live on their own; this book is about how our upbringing can resonate into adulthood, and how adulthood itself isn’t a kind of stasis between adolescence and old age. Oli is learning what comes after independence, and how to form alliances with others. Caleb is learning how to let go, how to surrender some of his control and take leaps of faith. It all felt very real to me.
This is a book about trust and power and leaps of faith; about family and friends and navigating the world of changing adulthood. It’s about giving love a chance, and the sacrifices adults make to bring another person into their lives.
I don’t know what else to say, except: If you haven’t read everything by Santino Hassell, then I am so excited for you, because you get to read these book for the first time. Go, read, enjoy!
…just make sure you have a fainting couch nearby.
What you may not like: This is not a hearts and flowers romance with two idealized guys. Caleb and Oli are very real and don’t always act likeable at times. To paraphrase Oli: You won’t find Prince Charming here.
What I loved: The immersive, wonderful writing, the realism, the complications of intimacy, the smoking hot sex, and all the wonderful secondary characters. (Mere! I love you, Mere.)