Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Tropetastic and Thoughtful High-Concept Romance: Mhairi McFarlane's IF I NEVER MET YOU

The high-concept/tropetastic hook: After her boyfriend-since-college unceremoniously dumps her, thirty-six year old biracial (or "dual heritage") Nice Girl Laurie Watkinson tries to make him jealous by dating the playboy at the Manchester (England) law firm where all three work.

The far more nuanced details:

I'm not usually all that drawn by high-concept romances, but I found If I Never Met You a real pleasure. McFarlane doesn't just play the trope for easy laughs; she digs deep into the feelings of Laurie and her boyfriend/ex Dan, and shows how a good relationship can gradually slip away without you even recognizing it (and how the relationship you thought was so great really had its downsides, downsides that because you were in the midst of it, you had trouble even seeing). She also shows, rather than just tells, why white playboy Jamie feels the way he does about romantic attachments (Chapter 13, where Jamie talks about why "I'm kind of a communist when it comes to relationships" is especially amusing), and why he urges Laurie to buy into his plan for them to fake date (the law firm wants him to "show my conventional settledness" before they give him a promotion).

What was most striking to me, though, was Laurie's gradual understanding of the gendered dynamics at work at her law firm, dynamics that shape both how she and Jamie are perceived by their co-workers. Jamie, a self-confident overachiever, refuses to conform to what his male colleagues want of him, and so he is turned into the office villain and ostracized ("Laurie saw how the trick was worked: the alleged villainy was entirely subjective, a matter of taste not substance: waltzing and swaggering. She increasingly suspected Jamie's offense was his refusal to play the popularity game"). But Laurie is valued by her male colleagues more for who she is dating than for the quality of her own work, even by the men who insist they are her friends, are looking out for her interests in warning her away from Jamie. As Laurie recognizes, "she had always been aware Salter & Rowson was a toxically sexist environment." But "she had been protected" as long as she was dating Dan. Now, though, "as a single woman, she was fair game for the rough-and-tumble of such politics. She was—apparently—daring to have carnal relations with a male the testosterone club didn't like, and that had to be punished."

Laurie also gradually realizes that Jamie's reputation as a heartless playboy is who he is ("You're an actual womanizer, snaring the unwary by doing a comic parody of a womanizer"), but it is only one side of a far more complicated, and more interesting, person than she, or anyone else at the law firm, ever thought.

McFarlane is a strong writer on all fronts: character, plot, theme, and voice. I especially enjoyed the cast of interesting secondary characters (especially both characters' parents, and Laurie's friend Nadia, an odd duck but a damned articulate feminist), and McFarlane's way with words.

A few favorite lines:

"Her mother and father were opposite poles, Laurie realized; her dad said the right things and didn't mean them, and her mum might feel them, but she never said so."

"No one is going to think Hermione Granger here is having it off, big style, with Draco Malfoy"

"in the very unlikely event she found herself in love with anyone again, she'd assert herself. She'd say what she wanted, not endlessly accommodate his needs. If that made her a bitch at any point, so be it. There were no rewards for being a walkover."

"I'm sick of this perception of me as the greatest man slag of the northwest," he said.
"Then be less man slag. Bee the unslaggy man you want to see in the world."

McFarlane is a new-to-me author (perhaps I haven't heard of her because she's a Brit, and I'm in the States?), but I'll definitely be checking out her other books.

Mhairi McFarlane
Willam Morrow/HarperCollins, 2020

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Pride and Prejudice 3 Ways: Soniah Kamal's UNMARRIAGEABLE, Uzma Jalaluddin's AYESHA AT LAST, and Sonali Dev's PRIDE, PREJUDICE, AND OTHER FLAVORS

In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, literary critic Pamela Regis describes Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as "probably the best-known canonical romance novel" (27-28). It is certainly a touchstone work in the English-language romance genre. Which makes it fascinating to read retellings of Elizabeth and Darcy's rocky road to romance written by authors from cultures which were once colonized by the English. How do South Asian writers reimagine this quintessentially English story?

Soniah Kamal chooses broad comedy and culturally specific feminist critique in Unmarriageablea modern-day P&P retelling set in current-day Pakistan. Plotwise, Kamal's is the closest of the three books discussed here to Austen's original story, with both characters and events closely mirroring those of P&P.  Thirty-year-old Alysba Binat, the second of five daughters of a formerly wealthy landowner, teaches English at a girl's secondary school in the fictional Dilipabad to support her family, as does her elder sister Jena. Alys struggles not only to instill in her students a love of English literature, but also to show them an alternative to the "Tao of good girls in Pakistan," which is to marry early, start a family without delay, and have grandchildren before you know it" (6). But many of her students are far more interested in when Alys will be married herself than in following her example of pursuing a college education and holding out for a spouse who "believed in sharing the housework, kids, and meal preparations without thinking he was doing a great and benevolent favor" (27).

Valentine Darsee, the nephew of the owner of the school where Alys teaches, hardly seems to embody such a man. At the most coveted event of the Dilipabad season, the Nadir-Fiede wedding, Darsee, who has recently returned from completing his MBA in America, belittles both Alys's looks and her intelligence to his friend "Bungles" Bingla ("Please, stop foisting stupid, average-looking women on me" [68]). Yet Bungles' pursuit of Jena keeps throwing them into each other's paths, and the two argue with intelligence and heat over literature, film, and how to create a Pakistani identity inclusive of an English-speaking tongue. Before he knows it, Valentine is proposing—quite badly, of course—to a less-than-receptive Alys. Valentine's interference in Jena and Bungles' romance, not to mention his role in disinheriting his cousin, Jeorgeullah Wickhaam, from inheriting a share in the British School Group owned by his family.

Yet there's far more to Valentine Darsee than Alys's first impression suggests. And as he reveals his own family's vulnerability, helps Alys' through the scandal of her youngest sister's elopement, and straightens out weak-willed Bungles' love life, Alys has to reconsider.

As a cultural outsider, I sometimes found it difficult to navigate the book's humor. Am I really meant to admire, rather than ridicule, a character named "Bungles"? Are the sisters with rhyming names (Sammy and Hammy Bingla; Beena and Deena Khala) meant to be funny, or are such sibling names common in Pakistani culture? But Alys's frequent critiques of Pakistani patriarchy, as well as her arguments with Darsee about how to square a love of a colonizer's culture with the damages that colonizers' actions have done to one's own, are as accessible as are Austen's own critiques of English patriarchy and her far less radical ones of English social class.

The Binat family in Kamal's novel is Muslim, as are the characters in Uzma Jalaluddin's Ayesha at Last. But while religion served as more of a cultural marker in Unmarriageable, it is central in Ayesha. And its more intriguing character is the male, rather than the female, half of P&P's romantic duo. Khalid Mirza may have been born in Canada, not in India as were his parents, but Khalid is as observant a Muslim as anyone back in Hyderabad. But not everyone in the new neighborhood to which Khalid and his mother have recently moved, a neighborhood in which "the brown and black faces reflected his own," are as committed to Muslim pieties as is Khalid. Which causes some friction when Khalid's mother begins the process of finding her only son a suitable wife. For his part, Khalid is happy to have his marriage arranged: "A partner carefully chosen for him, just as his parents had been chosen for each other and their parents before them, seemed like a tidy practice. He liked the idea of being part of an unbroken chain that honored tradition and ensured family peace and stability" (3). He's actually looking forward to having a wife, hoping that it will help alleviate the loneliness he's felt since his older sister Zareena was sent back to India to attempt to curb her rebellious streak. At least, until he begins planning a youth conference at the local mosque with Hafsa, the daughter of a wealthy local family, and finds himself increasingly attracted to her.

What Khalid doesn't know is that "Hafsa" is really Ayesha, his across-the-street neighbor, who has been pulled into the masquerade to help cover for her irresponsible younger cousin. A recent college graduate, Ayesha is spending the year as a substitute teacher at a local high school, hoping that her temp gig will turn into a permanent one. Her first meeting with Khalid is hardly auspicious—hearing him declare that he "stays away from the type of Muslim who frequents bars" when her friend tries to set her up with him leads Ayesha to grab the mic at the Open Mic Poetry Slam where they were supposed to meet:

You fail to see
The dignified persona
Of a woman wrapped in maturity.
The scarf on my head
Does not cover my brain.
I think, I speak, but still you refrain
From accepting my ideas, my type of dress,
You refuse to believe
That I am not oppressed.
So the question remains:
What do I see when I think of you?
I see another human being
Who doesn't have a clue.

Ayesha had written her poem with "veil-chasers" (men who think women in hijab are an exotic challenge) in mind, but is convinced that it applies equally well to the "judgmental, sexist jerk" that she sees in Khalid. But since Jalaluddin gives us a dual point of view narrative, readers know that Ayesha has far more in common with Khalid than she, or he, initially believes.

Jalaluddin's humor is not as broad as Kamal's, although her story contains many laugh-out-loud lines:

"When an unmarried man and woman are alone together, a third person is present: Satan."... Khalid found this reminder helpful, especially when paired with cold showers. There wasn't much more that a twenty-six-year-old virgin-by-choice could do really" (12).

And it contains equally thoughtful discussions of cultural identity, although identity here is not that of a post-colonial, but of an immigrant. To avoid racism and prejudice, should Khalid follow his colleague Amir's example? "This political shit is everywhere. The least you can do is stay under the radar. Adopt some camouflage. That's when I did when I moved here. I learned to blend in" (55). Or should he act the one way his mother has taught him to be a good Muslim? Or can Ayesha show him a third way?

I wasn't that fond of the way that the two most powerful women in the story (Khalid's mother, and his female boss) are painted with broad bad-woman strokes, nor with the way that each is humiliated at story's end, while the story's Wickham character is looked upon with sympathy, if not empathy. And the backstory of Khalid's sister's banishment, and her ultimate happiness with it, undermines the novel's questioning of Khalid's mother's single-minded adherence to her own brand of Muslim piety. Yet reading a Muslim romantic comedy is a rare enough treat that I temporarily put aside these misgivings to enjoy the myriad pleasures Jalaluddin's unusual romance offers.

My favorite of the three P&P retellings is Sonali Dev's Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors. Not because it is set in the United States, rather than in another country, or because it features the characters most assimilated to Western culture, but because Dev is the deftest at sketching character and crafting memorable prose. And because her retelling shifts the story in a surprising direction, placing an emotionally clueless female surgeon in the role of stiff, arrogant Mr. Darcy, and a sensual male chef in that of witty but judgmental Elizabeth Bennet.

Unlike Khalid and Ayesha, whose families maintain much of their Indian heritage after immigrating to another country, thirty-two year old Trisha Raje and her siblings have focused the majority of their energy on assimilation. Despite the fact that back in India, her father is His Royal Highness the twenty-third maharaja of the princely state of Sripore, HRH, as his children only half-jokingly call him, insists that fitting in in his new country is essential. And fit in his children have done, helped along by their family's immense economic privilege. Eldest brother Yash is a rising political star in California, elder sister Nisha a successful wife, and Trisha one of the country's top brain surgeons.

Her medical mentor has tried over the years to impart to Trisha the importance of a charming bedside manner, but "Trisha had never understood the big brouhaha over doctors' manners.... A soft touch hadn't gotten her where she was" (Kindle Loc 190, 224). Instead, Trisha appreciates another lesson: to keep your emotions out of your job, something that comes far easier to her than to most other doctors. Trisha's brusque, direct manner and general obliviousness to others' feelings disrupts traditional gender norms more than do her surgical skills. That Trisha inadvertently insults the caterer hired to cook for one of her brother's political events is hardly surprising for a woman whom "everyone [knows has] absolutely no emotional intelligence" (2023).

What is surprising is that said caterer, British born Anglo-African-Indian Darcy James Caine, turns out to be the brother of Emma, one of Trisha's new patients. Every other surgeon has given up Emma's case as hopeless, but Trisha, using a newly developed surgical technique, knows that she can excise the brain tumor pressing on Emma's optic nerve. The only downside: Emma will lose her sight. And as Emma is a visual artist (her "Penile Dysfunction" series one of the more popular of the works she's created), she's refusing to let Trisha operate. And judgmental Trisha is blaming DJ for not convincing his sister otherwise, even as she finds herself growing more and more attracted to his cooking—and to him. (Favorite line: "What was wrong with her? It was like having another person inside her. A person she had no control over. This having-feelings-for-someone business was like being infected by a tapeworm" [3813])

Both DJ and Trisha have rich backstories that help explain their current prejudices and points of pride (Dev's reimagining of Wickham, and the effects of Wickham's betrayal on Trisha, are particularly thought-provoking). And Dev constructs differences in class, privilege, and racial appearance that make her protagonists' constant clashes understandable and sympathetic to the reader, if not, at first, to one another. What makes those clashes so compelling is that neither Trisha nor DJ is completely wrong—or completely right. Having pride in her work isn't Trisha's problem; thinking others' work is not as important as hers is. And while indulging in prejudice in a world where people are judged and misjudged based on the color of their skin is clearly wrong, learning to discern between people who will do whatever it takes to help others and those who manipulate you into thinking they care when they're only out for themselves is a vital skill.

In her concluding "About the Book," Dev notes "The fact that I can relate so viscerally to Austen's heroines is bizarre, even ironic, given that her heroines lived in a time when her country had enslaved mine while proliferating the theme of 'East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.' But then that's the genius of Austen, isn't it?" (5975). As it is the genius of three writers, who all take Austen's characters and themes and use them to comment upon postcolonial, immigrant, and racial identities to such pointed, insightful, and above all, entertaining, effect.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Learning to Grieve: Linda Holmes' EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER

How many times have you looked at a happily married couple and thought, "wow, how perfect are those two for one another?"

And how many times has that image of perfection been at all close to the truth?

To everyone in her small (very white) Maine hometown, Evvie Drake seems to be living a perfect fairy tale. She and her high school sweetheart, Tim, attended college together, maintained a long-distance relationship during his medical residency, then married and moved back to Calcasset, even though they could have run off to the big city as so many other young Down Easters had done. Tim was "effortlessly charming" to everyone he met, and served his small community with pride and care, and the house he bought for his wife was far more luxurious than the small cottage in which she grew up. Even Evvie's hardworking lobsterman father thinks "my Eveleth is so lucky, that Tim wants to be her husband" (Kindle Loc 1152). For ordinary Evvie to have caught good doctor Tim seems luckier than hauling in the season's largest catch of lobsters.

Which is why when Tim dies in a car crash, everyone in town understands Evvie's debilitating grief.

Everyone, that is, except Evie.

Because nobody besides Evvie knows that when she got the call from the hospital a year earlier, telling her that her husband had been in an accident, she'd been just about to leave: leave Calcasset, leave her marriage, and above all, leave her too perfect to be real husband. The third person narrator doesn't tell the reader why Evvie was poised for flight; everyone else in town, including Evvie's own family, thinks Tim was the perfect doctor, the perfect husband, the perfect small town guy. This disconnect between her own far less rosy memories of her marriage and those of everyone else around her, and her need to keep her aborted flight from town a secret so she won't be accused of heartlessness toward the dead and departed Tim, has Evvie just as stuck—in Calcasset, in the house that she hates—as if she had really been grieving for a beloved spouse. As the narrator explains at the start of the story,

It had been almost a year since Tim died, and she still couldn't do anything at all sometimes, because she was so consumed by not missing him. She could fill up whole rooms with how it felt to be the only person who knew that she barely loved him when she'd listened to him snoring lightly on the last night he was alive. Monster, monster, she thought. Monster, monster. (Kindle Loc 137)

Her best friend, Andy, worried that Evvie is spending too much time by herself ("You know...it's not good to be alone too much. It'll make you weird" [232]) persuades her to rent out the small apartment attached to her house to his old college buddy, Dean, who wants to get away for a few months from his life of notoriety in New York City. A former World Series-winning pitcher for the Yankees, Dean's case of the "yips" (an inexplicable loss of fine motor skills in a mature athlete; in baseball, the ability to accurately throw the ball) has become so disastrously embarrassing that he's been voted "First Athlete We'd Throw into an Active Volcano" by the fans on a popular sports website. Tired of the taunts and interviews and endless analysis, Dean decides to officially retire, and needs a quiet place where he can take it easy for a while while he figures out what to do with the rest of his life. Since Andy presumes that Evvie is doing the same, he guesses that they'll have a lot in common.

At first, Evvie is reluctant, but she changes her mind when it turns out that Dean is as wary of talking about baseball as Evvie is about talking of her widowhood:

     "I do think we should have a deal." She looked at him expectantly. "You don't ask me aboput baseball," he said, "and I don't ask you about your husband."
     She blinked. "I didn't ask you about baseball."
     "I know. I didn't ask you about your husband."
     "But you want to have an official arrangement."
     He rubbed his eyes. "I don't know how much you know about it, Evvie, but I have had a shitty year. A shitty couple of years. And I have talked about it a lot. And I think maybe you're in the same position. If you're okay with this, you'd be doing me a favor, and you'd be doing me an even bigger favor if it can just be normal. I'll say hi, and you can say hi, and we won't do, you know, the whole thing with the mysterious sad lady and the exiled... fuckup." (454)

After Dean moves in, he and Evvie keep things pleasant, chatting amiably about books and television and small towns versus big cities, light, funny conversations that steer well clear of baseball and grief. But Evvie watches as Dean as he throws pine cones in the pitch-dark of the Maine evenings, and wonders if he has truly given up his dream of throwing again in the majors. And Dean listens when Evie "punch[es] a little hole in the rowboat in which they'd decided to float" by telling him about the memorial service she's attended for her husband, and perceptively asks why she doesn't include herself in the list of people for whom the "memorial thing" was great (745). And hears the confession that tumbles out of Evvie's mouth:

"I felt bad," she said, "because they all loved him so much, and I didn't. I mean, I loved him originally, a lot, but I didn't when he died. He wasn't nice to me. He didn't hit me or anything, but he was sometimes pretty nasty. And then he died, and now when I'm around people who miss him, I don't know what to do. Sometimes I can't sleep because I don't miss him so much, which sounds crazy. But...that. (755)

After a few more rounds of punching holes in the rowboat of their non-discussion agreement, Dean proposes that they call the agreement off, and choose to be friends instead. And after that, attraction begins to leak through the gaping rowboat hole. But when Evvie's penchant for making everybody happy all the time runs smack into Dean's tiny but still not entirely extinguished desire to pitch again, will nurturing hopes once set aside lead to a new start? Or only to a dead end?

Evvie's struggles are all behind the scenes, hidden from her family and fellow townspeople, and often even from herself. Dean's, in contrast, are everything public, appallingly visible to millions who shiver with the horrified glee of schadenfreude at the once elite athlete who now throws even worse than they do. But both are struggling with how to grieve: for a dead husband Evvie no longer loves; for a career Dean still does; and most importantly, for the selves each worked so hard to construct in each of those roles: cheerful, uncomplaining wife; dominating never-fail star pitcher. Even if those constructions did and continue to do each of them more harm than good.

With its slowly-developing romance, and its focus on the many ways that both Evvie and Dean need to learn to "start over," Holmes' story is closer to women's fiction than it is to full-blown romance. And its storylines do not all end in the easy triumph common to genre romance. But with its sensitively-constructed characters, amusing and clever dialogue, and all too believable depiction of one woman's gradual understanding and acceptance of how she was once gaslighted and emotionally abused, Evvie Drake Starts Over might just be the most quietly charming work of feminist romantic fiction I've read this year.

Photo credits:
Breaking the Yips cycle: Peak Performance Sports

Linda Holmes
Ballantine Books, 2019

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Romancing Outrage: Aya de Léon's SIDE CHICK NATION

Side chick, n:

The other woman; also known as the mistress; a female that is neither a male's wife or girlfriend who has relations with the male while he is in another relationship (Urban Dictionary)

(African American Vernacular, slang) A mistress; a woman one dates in addition to one's girlfriend or wife, usually in secret (Wiktionary)

Dulce García knows exactly what it means to be a side chick. Wooed by a far older man when she was only fourteen, Dulce thought she'd won the role of princess in a Disney movie, a girl destined to live happily after with a man who promised to take care of her. Instead, her prince turned out to be a pimp, asking her to sleep with others as a favor, and then as an expectation, and finally, not asking at all. Dulce's eighteen before a group of activist former and current sex workers helps her flee from the violent man (see previous books in the Justice Hustlers series).

But the patterns Dulce learned during her years with her pimp are hard to escape. Her next long-term boyfriend hooks her with the line "Would you do me the honor of letting me pay your bills?" This boyfriend doesn't ask her to sleep with anyone else, but before long he stops taking her out and lavishing money on her, even interrupting their time together to read and answer texts from some other woman. Dulce knows she's about to be demoted from side chick to nonentity, and steals her boyfriend's drug dealing stash so she can flee to the Dominican Republic where she has family.

But small-town life in the DR is too slow for Dulce, and she's soon picking up wealthy men in hotels on different Caribbean islands, staying with her sugar-daddies for days or weeks at a time, entertaining them while their wives and girlfriends wait for them back in the States. Even while on date with Xavier, a Puerto Rican reporter now living in the U. S., a man who actually seems to like her for herself, Dulce instinctively answers the call from a past sugar daddy looking to hook up again. And lies to Xavier about the man who's picking her up in the middle of their dinner.

But then Hurricane Irma slows the flow of sugar daddies visiting the Caribbean to a trickle. And Dulce finds herself sleeping in a storage room in San Juan, waiting for the next hurricane to hit.

Hurricane María...

If you are looking for a narrative of personal redemption, a story in which an unworthy heroine is punished and made humble by the elements and by the suffering of herself and others, and is thus made worthy of love and respect, Side Chick Nation is not the book for you. All the anger in de León's narrative is for those take advantage of vulnerable people like Dulce: abusive husbands, boyfriends, and pimps; privileged reporters complaining about the tough conditions they have to live with in order to report on the conditions in Puerto Rico post-hurricane; relief workers and rescuers more eager to dish out verbal abuse than material aid; and above all, the United States, the colonizer that continues to bleed its territory dry. Though she writes with tension and suspense of Dulce's physical trials during and after María hits the island, de León is far more interested in the ways that the natural disaster, and the United States' lackluster response to it, demonstrates a longer term pattern, a pattern illuminated by her book's title. Puerto Rico, like Dulce herself, is no more than a side chick to the powerful, alluring, but ultimately exploitative country that "won" her more than a hundred years ago.

But is every man, and every American, on the market for a side chick? In the aftermath of the hurricane, Xavier is back in Puerto Rico, worried about Dulce and hard in pursuit of the real stories behind the devastating natural disaster. Savvy Dulce, knowing that Xavier might just be her ticket out of the devastated country, finds her way to the hotel where he and the other American reporters are being housed. But as Xavier invites her to work with him covering the story, Dulce's joy in writing, a joy she had almost forgotten after being lured into a life of prostitution, reemerges. But will her past as a sex worker stand in the way of her new dreams? And can she trust any man, even one as seemingly kind as Xavier, is not ultimately out to exploit her?

In her Author's Note, de León explains that she was developing a different storyline for this fourth book in her Justice Hustlers series when María hit Puerto Rico. Writing within the confines of the genre conventions of the series makes for an uneven narrative; heists in which the previous members of the Hustlers ladies, but not Dulce, participate, are important to "the larger story [de Léon is] hoping to tell about colonization, climate change, and the need for women of color to be leaders in transforming both," but don't feel integral to Dulce's personal or romantic arcs (Kindle Loc 4976). Nor do the side stories of New Yorker Marisol, the protagonist of The Boss, and her cousins back on the island. But as De León argues in the conclusion to her Author's Note, "heist fiction has proven a fitting genre for this story: as these characters have had to battle law and custom to find small pockets of justice and reparation, similarly, the extended family of Puerto Rico will have to keep battling laws, customs, history, and entrenched power structures to get the justice and the reparations that the island deserves" (4976). No woman—and no territory—deserves to be anyone's side chick.

Photo credits:
"Somewhere there's a guy..." Urban Dictionary
"Ten thousand miles...": "American Propaganda: Controlling Public Opinion in Puerto Rico."

Aya de León
A Justice Hustlers novel
Kensington/Dafina, 2019

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Two approaches to romancing the curvy girl: Kilby Blades' THE SECRET INGREDIENT and Sierra Simone's MISADVENTURES OF A CURVY GIRL

While attending the conference of the New England Chapter of RWA last month, I overheard a writer complaining about the rise of "curvy girl" romances. Oh, this writer had no problem with romances that feature girls whose bodies do not fit the rail thin catwalk model profile; rather, she was sick of such romances that spent pages and pages focusing on the female protagonist's issues, problems, and phobias about her body size. "There are lots of women out there who are curvy and proud of it; why can't we see more of them in romance?"

I was thinking about this comment while I read two recent novels self-labeled "curvy girl" romances: Sierra Simone's Misadventures of a Curvy Girl and Kilby Blades' The Secret Ingredient (with the marketing-savvy subtitle A Curvy Girl Small Town Culinary Romance). Both novels feature heterosexual women who do not fit into the size 4-6 clothing made for a typical runway model. One book acknowledges that and then moves on without further comment; the other puts its protagonist's struggles to embrace body positivity in the face of a past history of fat policing and shaming front and center.

These two romances may take the exact opposite approach to depicting the curvy girl, but each does so for distinctly feminist reasons.

In Kilby Blades' The Secret Ingredient, celebrity chef Marcella Dawes has fled the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles for the east coast, renting a cottage on the North Carolina shore to work on her latest cookbook between seasons of taping her television show, "Cooking with Marcella." Her neighbor Max Picarelli is even more peripatetic; as a plastic surgeon, he travels the world on the dime of a nonprofit, doing reconstructive surgery for children with cosmetic birth defects. But in his downtime, Max, who has Italian roots just like his new neighbor, loves to cook, and is a secret fan of everything Marcella, whom he thinks of as "chef extraordinaire and goddess of the kitchen" (Kindle Loc 80). As Max describes her, "Marcella was everything a woman should be: all confidence and curves, and a true classic beauty to boot. He had often admired her generous proportions and everything that perfected them—those vibrant eyes, that gentle voice, and her mane of thick, dark hair" (73).

Marcella is a "curvy girl" only if one defines "curvy" as the norm, a point Blades is clear to make early in the story. As Cella thinks when comparing Max to the typical LA man, "Half the men Cella had dated had skin that was softer than hers. They were usually prettier and skinnier, too. At a size twelve, Cella was an average American women. LA was running as short on those was it was on strapping American men" (206). Advertising and media might make women believe that their curves are abnormal, too much, but Cella knows perfectly well that her size is nothing out of the ordinary. (In fact, Cella may be below the current U.S. norm: see this 2016 study).

Cella has no issues with her weight, with her body image, or with feeling desire for, or feeling desirable to, another person. The conflicts her stem from job satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, for both Cella and Max, not from any issues Cella has with her size or weight. Despite the novel's subtitle, the slow-build romance that builds between Max and Cella has nothing to do with Cella's "curviness." The subtitle is a bait-and-switch in the most positive sense, serving up a story of a woman with absolutely no problem with her size to readers using the search term "curvy girl" to find a romance.

Unlike Blades' Cella, Sierra Simone's Ireland Mills, who is white, has struggled with how to think, and feel, about her body for most of her life. Ireland isn't as skinny as a model; nor is she an "average" size twelve. Ireland's 5' 2", and wears a size 18 (Kindle Loc 102). But at the start of Misadventures of a Curvy Girl, Ireland has determined to break free from the negative thoughts about weight that her sister and her ex-boyfriend have spent years instilling in her (A girl of your size really should have shorter hair. Don't you think that's more of a "goal" outfit? But those dance classes aren't designed for people to lose weight... [65]). Fat-shaming framed as benevolence, Ireland has finally realized, is still fat shaming. And Ireland is so over it: "I was over the diets that didn't work. I was over the grueling gym schedule that left no time for fun. I was over hiding behind my friends whenever we took pictures. I was over shopping for print tunics at Blouse Barn" (Loc 81). Ireland's going to dress the way she wants, have fun the way she wants, and eat the way she wants, other people's judgments be damned. And if that means not having a boyfriend, then so be it: "I'd rather be alone than be with someone who will only love me if I'm skinny" (94).

Simone rewards her protagonist for taking this major step towards body positivity with not just one, but two handsome men who find her curves just to their liking. At a photography shoot on a Kansas farm  (Ireland prefers to be behind, rather than in front of, the camera), Ireland meets hunky farmer Caleb, who is immediately smitten: "She better get used to being pampered and taken care of, because I want to make it my life's work. And that's after only an hour together. Christ, I have it bad" (361). But Caleb is a package deal with best friend, bar owner Ben; the two, who have been besties since kindergarten, have discovered they're happiest when they love (and make love with) the same woman, together. Ireland hasn't ever really considered polyamory, but with two such kind, gorgeous, and sexy men, and her own awakened curiosity, she's quickly on board with the kink.

Erotic bliss, however, doesn't preclude emotional difficulties. Especially when Ireland discovers that her commitment to body positivity can't always withstand self-doubts and the voices of shame from her past. It takes some arguing, a break-up or two, and some honest talk by an acquaintance who doesn't buy into the "accept your body and everything will be OK" hype for Ireland to understand that body positivity isn't just about how you feel, but about what you do:

Body positivity doesn't mean you flip a switch and walk around feeling great for the rest of your life. It's not even really about feelings at all. Body positivity is about what you do. It's about daring to live your life as you are—not fifty pounds from now, not six dress sizes from now. And there are going to be days when ever bad feeling comes back for you again. When you feel all the messy, hopeless things you thought you were past feeling. Those are the days you do it anyway" (2456)

Acknowledge a character's "curviness" and move on; highlight a character's curviness and focus on her challenges and triumphs as she works to accept and enjoy her body—both methods work to convey the feminist message that while fat oppression is real, people who understand its methods can challenge the negative biases it demands far too many of us embrace.

Photo sources:
Average size comparisons: Into the Wild
Stop negative talk: Safecity

The Secret Ingredient
Luxe Publishing, 2019

Misadventures of a Curvy Girl
Waterhouse Press, 2019

A thought-provoking excerpt from Misadventures of a Curvy Girl:

     A couple of years ago, I was watching a movie with a handful of girlfriends as we traded gossip and passed around popcorn and bottles of wine. And we got to the part of the movie where the hero makes his grand gesture, chasing after the heroine and declaring his love for her. Declaring that sh was his.
     The room gave a collective groan at this, popcorn flying at the screen, and someone pronounced how utterly backward and chauvinistic is was and how she'd never be caught dead with a man who looked at her and said mine. A man who looked at her like she was a prize in the machine simply waiting to be claimed. I stayed silent. Because I wasn't going to argue that on a structural level men should act proprietary with women, and I never would. But on a personal level, well...
     It was hard to look at my friend, who was slender and sleek and would no doubt have men wanting her everywhere she went and not think easy for you to say. Her body was the kind of body that people wanted to claim, wanted to stake some kind of sexual ownership of, and mine was not—never had been, and as years of pointless diet torture had taught me, never would be.
     So it was hard not to wish I had the luxury of scoffing at male desire. It was hard to watch those movies and know that, according to them, people like me didn't have heroes chasing after them. People like me are the best friends, the comic relief, maybe even the villain.
     And in real life? In real life, the kind of male attention I received was dangerous and demeaning. Aggressive frat boys who told me I should feel "lucky" to have them fuck me and then got belligerent and nasty when I refused them. Mean men at bars who grabbed and groped and assumed I'd be grateful for the assault since clearly nobody else would ever want to touch my body.
     Girls like me, we didn't get chased, we didn't get claimed, we didn't get the happily ever after. Not in movies. Not in real life.
     And was it such a crime to want those things? (1624)

Friday, May 3, 2019

Imagining the Joys of a Progressive Political Future: Casey McQuiston's RED, WHITE, & ROYAL BLUE

Several of the workshops featured at this past weekend's "Let Your Imagination Take Flight" conference, hosted by my home chapter of Romance Writers of America, focused on "getting unstuck" and fighting writers' block. And I shared many conversations with fellow writers talking about the feeling that something is missing when we sit down to write these days, suggesting that this is an issue for many American romance authors at this particular point in history. Several colleagues pointed not to the prevalence of unpleasant weather currently plaguing America's northeast, but instead to the country's current political situation as the most likely reason why they are experiencing stress, lack of inspiration, and just plain burnout at the thought of writing about happily ever afters. It can be hard to imagine a more progressive future when you feel mired in an ever-expanding swamp of lies, constantly having to justify and defend the values, and the people, you hold dear.

Which was why it was such a joy to sit down post-conference and read Casey McQuiston's joyful but politically pointed romance comedy debut, Red, White, & Royal Blue. McQuiston originally came up with the hook-y premise for this book—the son of the American president falls for the youngest of England's royal princes—in early 2016, before the surprise of that fall's Presidential election. After said election, McQuiston herself felt blocked: "Suddenly what was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek parallel universe needed to be escapist, trauma-soothing, alternate-but-realistic reality. Not a perfect world—one still believably fucked up, just a little better, a little more optimistic. I wasn't sure I was up to the task" (Acknowledgements).

I for one am amazingly grateful that McQuiston managed not to give up on this story. For rather than reading as a "tongue-in-cheek parallel universe," the love story of presidential son Alex Claremont-Diaz and Prince Henry of Wales served for me as a glorious vision of a more hopeful, progressive, and utterly achievable political future.

What does said future look like? It looks like a country willing to elect not only a female President, but a female amicably divorced from her first husband and happily married to her second. It looks like a country with two biracial first children (Mexican-American senator father, white President mother), who, with the "vaguely bisexual" granddaughter of the Vice President, serve as the country's most talked-about, and admired, twenty-somethings. It looks like a world in which the younger generation, comfortable both working and socializing in a multiracial, international, global world, serves as a model for their more cautious elders.

It also happens to look a lot like a classic enemies-to-lovers romance.

Staffers new to the White House are informed early on of three important things about FSOTUS Alex Claremont-Diaz: he lives at the White House, even though he's still in college (Georgetown is so close!); he often calls for coffee in the middle of the night while working on his college essays or his mother's reelection strategy; and he has a long-standing grudge against the youngest of Britain's royal princes.

A few years older than Alex, Prince Henry has always struck Alex as a dull stick-in-the-mud, undeserving of all the adulation and attention focused on him:

The tabloids—the world—decided to cast Alex as the American equivalent of Prince Henry from day one, since the White House Trio is the closest thing America has to royalty. It has never seemed fair. Alex's image is all charisma and genius and smirking wit, thoughtful interviews and the cover of GQ at eighteen; Henry's is placid smiles and gentle chivalry and generic charity appearances, a perfectly blank Prince Charming canvas. Henry's role, Alex thinks, is much easier to play.
     Maybe it is technically a rivalry. Whatever. (Loc 149)

Which is why attending the wedding of Henry's older brother is filling Alex not with delight, but with snark. As he tells elder sister June, "You can't just call him my 'arch nemesis'... 'Arch nemesis' implies he's actually a rival to me on any level and not, you know, a stuck-up product of inbreeding who probably jerks off to photos of himself" (93). And so, to the surprise of no-one, Alex can't restrain himself from taunting his "arch nemesis" during the very proper wedding reception:

The most annoying thing of all is Alex knows Henry hates him too—he must, they're naturally mutual antagonists—but he refuses outright to act like it. Alex is intimately aware politics involves a lot of making nice with people you loathe, but he wishes that once, just once, Henry would act like an actual human and not some polished little wind-up toy sold in a palace gift shop. He's too perfect. Alex wants to poke it. (229)

Poking polite Henry, however, quickly escalates into "Cakegate" (you have to read it to appreciate it), an international breach of etiquette so dire that requires major diplomatic efforts (and major acting) to patch up. As his mother's aide sternly informs Alex,

"Both sides need to come out of this looking good, and the only way to do that is to make it look like your little slap-fight at the wedding was some homoerotic frat bro mishap, okay? So, you can hate the heir to the throne all you want, write mean poems about him in your diary, but the minute you see a camera, you act like the sun shines out of his dick, and you make it convincing" (311).

All Alex is convinced of is that a person who lists his hobbies as "polo" and "competitive yachting" has about as much personality as a cabbage. But with his mother facing a challenger criticizing her for her chilly relationship with her British counterpart, Alex gives in and heads to London for a whirlwind weekend visit with his "close personal friend" Prince Henry.

Alex prides himself on his ability to read others, and is convinced that he knows all he needs to about the stuffy, dull prince before he even gets off the plane. But during their tour through charity events, television interviews, and a false-alarm assassination attempt, "he keeps getting these little glimpses into things he never thought Henry was. A bit of a fighter, for one. Intelligent, interested in other people. It's honestly disconcerting" (623).

Even more disconcerting is the friendship the two develop via text message, and occasional in-person meetings, in the ensuing months. Because while Alex prides himself on his ability to read others, his ability to understand himself could use a bit more work. Especially when it comes to his own latent attraction to a not-quite-so-proper prince.

But can the son of the American president date a British prince in the middle of a re-election campaign? Especially if mom needs to win their home state of Texas in order to guarantee a repeat?

I've quoted so often from Red, White, & Royal Blue in the above review because so much of the pleasure in this rom com comes from McQuiston's distinctive, laugh-out-loud voice, told entirely from the point of view of its hyper intelligent but emotionally clueless main character. Though the story is told in the third person, it's also told in the present tense, which gives the narration both immediacy and a certain wry distance, both of which are perfectly suited to conveying Alex's character and charm. For example, after Alex sees a picture of Henry with a "mysterious blonde," the narrator tells us "Faintly, under it all, it occurs to him: This is all a very not-straight way to react to seeing your male frenemy kissing someone else in a magazine" (1655). Or the scene where Alex is trying to figure out whether he might not be as straight as he's always assumed by calling his former (male) best friend and asking, "This might sound weird. But, um. Back in high school, did we have, like, a thing? Did I miss that?" (5485).

No romance reader will want to miss McQuiston's glorious celebration of snark, sentiment, and the progressive political possibilities of a not quite straight royal romance.

And no writer could find a better cure for political-despair-induced writers' block than McQuiston's sparkling, effervescent romance.

Photo credits:
British/US flag pin: Athletic awards
Royal wedding cake: Getty Images
Hate to Love trope sticker: RedBubble 

Casey McQuiston
St. Martins, 2019

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Short Takes: Spring 2019 Historicals by RNFF favorites

Cover of Elizabeth Kingston's DESIRE LINES

After being in somewhat of a historical romance reading funk for the first few months of 2019, I was thrilled to see that several of my favorite historical romance writers had new books coming out in the spring. Here are my short recs for books by three RNFF favorites:

Courtney Milan's full-length historicals feature traditional male/female romance pairings. But her shorter works tends to star more unconventional couples. The duo in her latest, Mrs. Martin's Incomparable Adventure, might just win the award for most underrepresented characters in Victorian romance. Although they are both white, both of her lovers are female, as well as "seasoned"—one in her sixties, the other in her seventies. Though the eponymous Mrs. Martin suffers from a lack of spirits after the death of her best friend, she hasn't lost any of her outspoken manner ("My husband, God rot his soul, used to bring prostitutes home all the time. After he'd finished with them, I'd serve them tea and double whatever he was paying them.... It was hard work fucking my husband. Trust me, I should know. I certainly didn't want to do it" [Kindle Loc 225]). She's certainly not the meek, retiring gentlewoman recently sacked boarding house manager Miss Violetta Beauchamps was hoping for, a woman whom Violetta could somehow swindle into paying the far-overdue rent for her smarmy nephew. Violetta desperately needs that money in lieu of the pension her employer had promised her, but then chose not to pay her upon unfairly firing her after she'd worked for him for forty-seven years. In fact, Violetta is far closer to the meek mouse she had hoped Mrs. Martin would be than is the formidable Mrs. Martin herself.

But after Violetta shares the truth of her nephew's boorish behavior with his aunt, Bertrice Martin decides to set off on the adventure her doctor prescribed: not for a rest in Bath, but to London with Violetta, to help the unfortunate woman drive out the sponging "Terrible Nephew" from what she mistakenly assumes is Violetta's boarding house. Milan's trademark humor is in fine form here, as is her penchant for pushing her characters into a seemingly inescapable corners then inviting us to watch with unabashed glee as they use unconventional methods to escape the confines society wishes them to inhabit. Violetta's transformation, from traditionally "nice" woman who is happy to fade into the background to one who speaks out on her own behalf as well as Mrs. Martin's, is particularly delicious.

An Unconditional Freedom, the third entry in Alyssa Cole's American Civil War-set series The Loyal League, features a man as disillusioned as is Milan's Violetta, but far less happy to accept his fate with any meekness or humility. Before the war, Daniel Cumberland's greatest trauma was that the woman he loved (the heroine of book 1, An Extraordinary Union) did not love him back. But after the idealistic aspiring lawyer is kidnapped from his Massachusetts town and sold south into slavery, his happy, carefree nature is quickly beaten out of him. We meet Daniel after he is rescued from enslavement, unable to fit back into his old life, to "be strong and forget what happened," as his father recommends. Instead, he's working as a spy for the Loyal League, a spy who prefers to work alone. But when Janeta Sanchez, a new recruit, enters the league, the angry, disdainful Daniel is assigned to be her partner.

Janeta, the daughter of a Cuban planation owner and the black slave woman he later married, has grown up taking slavery for granted, even while recognizing that her golden brown skin makes others treat her not quite the same as they do her obviously Spanish half-sisters. Moving from Cuba to Florida changed little for her—until war broke out, and her father was arrested on suspicion of being a northern sympathizer. Her lover in the Rebel army promises that if she will spy on the Yanquis, he'll make certain her father is freed. And thus Janeta, the daughter of a slave owner, finds her way to the Loyal League, using her skill at hiding behind layers of pleasing behavior to ingratiate herself with all of its members. All, that is, but the wary Daniel.

Cole choice to decenter the whiteness that typically looms so large in northerner vs. southerner Civil War stories is not only a boon for readers of color looking for greater representation of their experiences in historical romance; it also allows white readers to step away their fears of being associated with the villain in the more typical white/black binary portrayal of slavery. Which may allow them to read without debilitating defensiveness about the blind spots that many whose heritage does not include a history of enslavement and racism often have towards those whose does, as well as the ways that good people are indoctrinated into accepting what we today often self-righteously believe we would never accept ourselves. Take this exchange between after Daniel and Janeta, after Daniel reveals the scars on his back:

     Janeta thought of the time her family had gone into the city center in Santiago. Her mother had clapped her hand over Janeta's eyes when they'd walked by a man tied to a post with his bloody back exposed.
     You don't need to see such things. You are a Sanchez. You don't have to endure such ugliness.
     She couldn't look away now, though. Daniel has bared to her this proof of his ill treatment and all she could ask herself was, "Why?"
     "That man tried to start an insurrection. They had to make an example of him."
     That's what her father had told her later when she'd questioned him about what she had seen. He'd handed her a gift when she'd asked why insurrection was bad, a beautiful porcelain doll with creamy skin, rouged cheeks, and blue eyes, and she'd let the matter drop.
     "What did you do?" she asked Daniel, and saw the muscles beneath the scars tense.
     "You think I did something to bring this upon myself?" he asked, his voice taut, and Janeta's fear came to the surface then. Not that he would hurt her, but that she'd made yet another misstep.
     "No! I—I meant, why did they do this to you?"
     He shook his head and pulled his shirt back up over his shoulder, not turning to face her as he did up his buttons.
     "I was born a Negro in a country where that is a crime, and I was ignorant enough not to know that I had already been convicted."(Kindle Loc 556)

Both Daniel and Janeta discover their own blind spots as they work together to track Jefferson Davis—and struggle to reconcile the plans of the Loyal League with their own secret goals.

Cover of Elizabeth Kingston's DESIRE LINES
After Elizabeth Kingston's call for "Reclaiming Historical Romance" in the December 2018 issue of RWA's Romance Writers' Report, I was interested to see how she herself would address the problem of white supremacy in her own medieval historical romance writing (you can get a copy of her article free via her online store). The third book in her Welsh Blades series, Desire Lines, features two white protagonists, one an aristocratic the other a servant. But neither protagonist is typical of their class, a major theme of the story. The book also includes a secondary character who is dark-skinned, and a brief subplot depicts a Jewish family persecuted by the English. Such characters, while they do not play major roles, go a long way towards disrupting the "white mythos" of the more traditional medieval historical romance.

Gryff and Nan first meet on the road to Lincoln, when the bandits who have been holding Gryff captive attack the group of travelers of which Nan is a part. It is the servant, Nan, though, not the nobleman Gryff who does the rescuing, letting fly with her deadly knives until all of the robbers are dead. Gryff, fearful for his life from more than just the bandits, doesn't tell his rescuer or any of her fellow travelers his true identity, and neither does the narrative, although brief flashbacks hint at his less than lowly upbringing. Nan, though a servant, has benefitted from the favor of several noblewomen, favor that has not only taught her how to wield a knife, but also to speak Welsh as well as a noblewoman would. During their long journey across England—Nan looking for a long-lost sister, Gryff for his best friend, after which both then travel to Wales—the two exist in a liminal space, outside of traditional societal norms and expectations. Which allows each to see beyond the surface of the other, and of course to fall in love with that person. But when their journey comes to an abrupt end, that liminal space ends, too, and each must decide whether their feelings for one another can survive in a world that expects something far different of a nobleman than it does of a servant. An old-fashioned historical in the best sense—not because it has an all-white cast, but because it glories in real angst, high stakes, and a bucketload of both physical and emotional longing, with personal feelings set against seemingly insurmountable demands of honor and duty.

Not to mention the falcons and hawks...