When Michael Picetti, deputy campaign manager for one of the leading Democratic candidates for President, finds himself sitting next to an Economics Today-reading, politically-obsessed Latina on a flight to pre-caucus Iowa, he automatically assumes his seat-mate is a liberal like himself. An assumption that Lydia Reales, Assistant Deputy Campaign Manager for Voter Outreach for Scott Stafford, Republican Presidential candidate, is all too used to hearing, and that she takes deep pleasure in scuttling, much to Michael's chagrin. Yet their almost-meet-cute is not the last; their campaign trail paths keep crossing and throwing them into each other's path, a path each is far too intrigued not to follow.
Neither Michael nor Lydia is an idealist, ready or eager to genuflect at the feet of candidates they know are far from faultless. But each is deeply committed to the central tenets of their respective political parties, as well as to the thrill of the campaign trail ("This job makes me feel like pure, concentrated awesome," Lydia tells Michael (Kindle Loc 576). And both are used to committing themselves 150% to their jobs. But as their antagonistic acquaintanceship merges into no-strings-attached sex, and then to friendship, cynic Michael finds himself unexpectedly wanting more. Can professional and personal desires, never mind political differences, be reconciled? Filled with fascinating details about life on the presidential campaign trail, the frustrations of both racial stereotypes and racial tokenism, and the precarious position one is put it not knowing whether the lack of appreciation one feels is due to sexism, racism, personality conflicts, or a combination of all of the above, Party Lines makes for a fittingly feminist conclusion to Barry's outstanding D.C. insider trilogy, The Easy Part.
On the outside, lawyer and PR manager Duncan Welch presents as cool, controlled, and utterly contemptuous of anyone who lacks his class, looks, and intelligence ("I'm exceedingly difficult to date. I posses a winning combination of impossibly high standards and stunted empathy," he opines with biting wit ). But when he's accused of taking bribes during a casino development project in largely working-class Fortuity, Nevada, Duncan's highly-polished surface develop a few telling cracks. Cracks that popping extra Klonopins, downing more vodka and tonics, or engaging in some obsessive-compulsive cleaning doesn't seem to fix. Cracks that never-get-attached bar-owner Raina Harper is all too interested in breaking wide-open.
The combination of English-born Duncan, an orphan who has never experienced love, and Raina, a half-Latina heroine who feels "my heart's spent," "most of the things a woman feels for a man" having been "used up" by her care for her recently deceased father, make for an unusual, dynamic romantic pairing (989). As does Raina's gender-bending admission, one accepted rather than demonized by the narrative, that "I don't like feeling like I'm being take care of by anybody... I'd much rather be needed than do the needing" (981-84). Care to guess who ends up doing the rescuing at the story's climax?
Courtney Milan, Trade Me (Cyclone #1)
Milan proves herself as adept at contemporary romance as she is at historical in this deeply intelligent story of a relationship between two people from vastly different social classes. The titular "trade" results from immigrant Tina Chen losing her cool when, during a discussion of food stamps in class, fellow college classmate billionaire tech genius Blake Reynolds makes a thoughtless comment ("No matter what we do, we always have a permanent underclass. The only question we have is how we treat them, and what that says about us" [p. 10]). Tina knows that that "we" sweeps people like her and her family conveniently out of sight, and that Blake, and most of her fellow classmates, have no idea what it means to live outside the bounds of middle class comfort. "Try trading lives with me. You couldn't manage it, not for two weeks," Tina challenges. To her utter surprise, Blake takes her up on the challenge, and offers her his lifestyle—money, car, apartment, job—if she'll pretend to be his girlfriend for the next few weeks.
What makes the story intriguing is that Blake's acceptance of Tina's challenge stems not from a manly desire to prove himself, but from his desire to run away from his own fears, fears that are gradually revealed over the course of the story. And tough-as-nails Tina has more than a few fears of her own, fears that have, ironically, kept her safe in a world filled with uncertainty of the financial and emotional types. And nothing about falling for a billion-point-four-aire genius with a brash, overbearing father and a boatload of psychological baggage says "safe" to Tina. Even if said genius proves to be far more than the stereotypes of a "winner of the nepotism lottery" might suggest. I especially loved the way that Milan presents each protagonist's difficult parent, a parent who in another author's hands would have clearly been labeled "villain," as rounded, intelligible, and above all sympathetic, complementing the book's larger themes of looking beyond the surfaces and understanding and confronting one's fears.