Before she's hauled off to jail, Erica tosses a challenge to the irate upstaged senator: "Come to my school. Explain your policies—your war—to my kids. Erica Johnson's fourth-grade classroom. Any time you want. Door's open." Little does Erica expect the cocky, smirking senator to show up at her school, nor does she expect him to offer a challenge of his own: to accompany him on a week-long swing back through his (unnamed) home state while he campaigns during the reelection primary. But neither the white conservative southerner nor the black liberal northerner can seem to stand down in the face of the other's challenges.
Langhorne does a great job presenting the humanity behind the political stances. Both Mark and Erica come off as intelligent, well-informed political actors, though each initially draws on stereotypes and easy put-downs to insult the other's position and to bolster his or her own. Each chapter opens with an epigraph or slogan, sometimes from the liberal point of view ("Waging war to stop terrorism is like using gasoline to put out a fire"), sometimes from the conservative ("If we don't stand up for something, we'll fall for anything"), with neither side belittled nor denigrated. It's clear that both Erica and Mark enjoy matching wits with the other, enjoy being challenged to support their views in the face of doubt. And the physical attraction between them is obvious to everyone around them.
But instead of reconciling their politics, the narrative sidesteps the issue of Mark and Erica's differences by introducing a suspense plot that places both in physical danger. Once each's life is threatened, their political differences become far less meaningful, far less divisive. As Erica tells Mark's media advisor, who questions the viability of Erica and Mark's relationship:
"There's more criteria in a successful relationship than what political party you belong to, or what color you are. There's another whole list of characteristics and qualifications. Things like trust and loyalty, having passion for people. A passion for life. It doesn't matter how it's directed. It matters that you both have it, and that you both know that, when it's all said and done, you're willing to work together, to fight together, and to serve the common good together."
It's a little difficult to say for sure in Unfinished Business. The novel ends with Mark and Erica agreeing to "try" to form a relationship, with an epilogue in the form of a newspaper wedding announcement describing them one year on. "I think they fight it out at home.... Then the senator comes in ready to work toward the best outcome. Marriage is all about compromise, and government is all about compromise. So it works for everyone," Mark's chief of staff is quoted as saying. But we don't hear much about any compromises: we don't know where they decided to live (in DC or in Billingham or both), whether Erica kept her teaching job, or whether she still publicly protests when Mark takes a stance with which she disagrees. The only sign of their compromise is their honeymoon in Baghdad, visiting servicemen and women: "they are both very committed to seeing our troops home safely." Have they compromised? Agreed to disagree? Decided never to talk politics? Readers are left wondering...
Have you read any romances with protagonists on opposite ends of the political spectrum? Do such romances tend to downplay political differences? Or do they show the two sides learning to compromise? Or do they argue that politics and the personal don't necessarily need to mix?
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