Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Crossing the Color Line in New Adult Romance: Jacinta Howard's HAPPINESS IN JERSEY

I've read a lot of New Adult romances since the birth of the subgenre in 2009. But it didn't register with me how most of the NA books I read featured primarily white protagonists until I picked up a copy of Jacinta Howard's Happiness in Jersey, on the recommendation of Women of Color in Romance. Howard's 2014 romance, set at historically black Texas College in Tyler, Texas, opens with the strong first-person narrative voice and focus on sex common to the NA genre: "I wasn't having an orgasm. And that realization was a little disappointing, given that he was still on top of me pumping like there was no tomorrow. Or like . . . well, I was about to have an orgasm" (5). But the narrator here is not the typical white girl New Adult protagonist with which I was most familiar. The nineteen-year-old telling this story is Jersey Kincaid, a Georgia-born African American who rocks out on the bass in her band, The Prototype. And her story is less about the melodrama typical of NA romance, and more about the painful story of coming to terms with trauma, both her own and that of the young man who becomes immediately entranced by her after watching her play.

Texas College students
As the opening paragraph of Happiness in Jersey illustrates, Jersey's narration is direct, honest, and unflinching. She openly enjoys sex, but isn't one for boyfriends or relationships: "I just never wanted to do all of the emotional bullshit I guess. Too much drama and work with hardly any return" (114). In Jersey's experience, boys expect subservience and idolization from the women they date, things that she's not at all inclined to give. With her band and rehearsals, her job at a local coffee shop, and her grades in business management to keep up, there's no time for anything as complicated as a relationship that blurs the lines between friendship and sex.

Jersey's toughness, and her wariness about letting down her guard, stem not just from her personality, but also from trauma in her past: the suicide of her mother when Jersey was only nine weeks old, and the verbally abusive behavior of her Pops, who takes out his resentment of her dead mother on her, and who, when he drinks too much, tends to berate Jersey for being the cause of her mother's death. Jersey's best friend and bandmate Devin worries that Jersey's penchant for one night stands is a defense mechanism, one that allows Jersey to distract herself from her pain: "messing with these dudes isn't anything but you being emotional about other shit and trying to compensate for it with them. I guarantee you talked to your Pops today, huh?" (13). But even if Devin's "psychobabble bullshit" contains a grain of truth, Jersey has no desire to delve into it, not with Devin, and certainly not with herself. She's just fine the way she is, thank you very much. And cut it with the slut-shaming already, right?

But even Jersey can't help but admit that her attraction to the cousin of one of her bandmates isn't quite like anything she's experienced before. Zay, "short for Isaiah" Broussard, who has recently transferred to Texas College from his home in New Orleans, is one handsome dude: "His hair was grown out but cut low, not a fro like Devin's. It too was unkempt, but it was curly. His skin was dark caramel. But those eyes. They were piercing—and beautiful" (22). It's not just Zay's looks, though, but the look in those eyes, that draws Jersey: "He looked about our age, but like he'd seen some things in his life. I knew the look well" (23). In all likelihood because it's a look that Jersey wears herself.

Despite her attraction, Jersey insists on giving the flirtatious Zay the brush-off. But Zay, who has experienced painful losses of his own, recognizes a kindred spirit in Jersey, and keeps after her, clear that he'll back off if she wants him to, but equally clear that he really wants to get to know her better:

"I'm not a stalker, Kitten. Just interested, that's all."
My heart was thudding in my chest now and I struggled to breath normally. His words were simple, flirtatious, harmless. But it somehow felt like he was declaring something.
     "I don't know if it's even possible anyway." I shrugged, looking down into my cup before meeting his eyes. The sun was lighting his face again and this time his eyes looked even lighter, almost blue.
     "What?" he asked curiously.
     "Knowing someone. I mean really knowing someone. People tend to surprise you with the things they don't let you see about themselves."
     His eyes turned thoughtful and his signature smirk was gone. He looked at me like he was seeing through  me and I shifted in m chair, biting the inside of my cheek. I didn't know why the hellI even said all of that. I must need more caffeine.
     "That's true. But sometimes finding out, digging beneath the facade is the fun part." He smiled and it seemed more genuine than the others he'd flashed at me. (37)

Esperanza Spaulding: a model for Jersey?
I'm usually not a fan of romances in which the heroine gives in a little to a potential romantic partner's desires for closeness (physical and emotional), only to immediately back off, then move closer, then back off yet again. But Howard shows us why Jersey is so cautious, so wary, so that her moments of desiring closeness, then then backing off in fear at her "weakness" in giving in to her desire, make all too painful sense. How she feels that her Pops is her only family, and so can't stop answering the phone when he calls, even though she ends up feeling like crap after they talk. How she worries that if Devin starts seriously dating a girl, he'll have no more time for her or their friendship. How she fears that she herself might fall into the same kind of depression that killed her mother if she spends too much time being introspective rather than pushing forward towards her goals.

What's so unusual in this push-pull romance is how well Zay understands Jersey's reluctance to reveal herself, her fear of getting involved and then being abandoned, and how both patient and yet persistent he is in offering her friendship, even though he knows (and lets her know) he wants far more. When the two do end up crossing the line into sex, Zay knows that Jersey's motivation is less about love and more about escape from bad feelings. "Maybe I was wrong, maybe I shouldn't have let you escape that way, when I knew what you were doing . . . [But] I wanted to be your escape, Jersey, I wanted to be that for you, I want to be that for you" (179). But the fear of loss is too much for Jersey, and once again she retreats, brutally burning bridges behind her.

The narrative is only from Jersey's point of view, so at times Zay feels almost too good to be true, a projection of what Jersey most needs rather than a character with his own personality and needs. But it is only when Jersey finally realizes that Zay could use help himself in dealing with the aftermath of his own trauma that she is able to begin to move past her own fears of abandonment and recognize that she can both help and be helped, love and be loved, be tough and be open—with the right person.

Howard's log line—"love is beautiful. people are messy. I write about the space in between"—feels like far more than a catching slogan. With her strong ear for dialogue, her gift for crafting nuanced characters, and her focus on protagonists whose voices are not often heard in New Adult romance, Howard is definitely a romance author worth following. I'm excited to pick up the second book in The Prototype series, and to dip into her adult contemporary romance series, Love Always.

Photo credits:
Texas College Students: Texas College Photo Gallery
Esperanza Spaulding: Wikipedia

Happiness in Jersey
The Prototype, Book 1
Indie published, 2014


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