Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Lesbian Romantic Suspense: Mason Dixon's DATE WITH DESTINY and Andrea Bramhall's CLEAN SLATE

During my summer vacation, as part of my ongoing project to read and review all of the books nominated for this past year's Lambda Award for best Lesbian Romance, I took on two books that can also be considered works of romantic suspense. Both Mason Dixon's Date with Destiny and Andrea Bramhall's Clean Slate feature heroines whose lives, and loves, are under threat. Would that threat stem from the fact that both protagonists are out lesbians, I wondered? Or would the danger result from something completely unrelated to the heroines' sexual identities?

The answer is slightly different for each book. In Date with Destiny, Rashida Ivey has been off the dating market for the past two years, throwing herself into her work as district operations manager for Savannah, Georgia's Low Country Savings Bank after her break-up with her partner of six years. But when Rashida accidentally dumps her coffee on another patron at her local GLBTQ coffee-shop, she finds herself immediately drawn to the attractive butch with the unusual name of Destiny. Destiny, out of work and looking for a job in the want ads, isn't someone professional Rashida, who has worked hard to pull herself up from her working-class roots, would be drawn to in the normal course of events. But when their paths cross again, and Destiny's background as a security guard comes up, Rashida suggests she apply for a job at one of her bank's branches. The fact that it's against company policy to fraternize with a fellow employee makes Rashida more than reluctant to pursue a relationship with Destiny, but the heat that sizzles between them has the usually rule-abiding Rashida tossing the rules to the wind. Rashida's referral of Destiny stands the bank in good stead, though: she discovers an embezzler, and helps rescue bank patrons during an elevator fire. But when Rashida is threatened with incriminating photos of her trysting with Destiny (accompanied by the kindly note "Is this any way for a reputable business woman to behave? Obviously, you can take the girl out of the 'hood, but you can't take the 'hood out of the girl"), and discovers the threat of a robbery plot, she finds herself questioning the wisdom of placing her romantic life ahead of her job.

It was exciting to read a romance with not just one, but two African-American heroines, as well as one that touches upon class as well as race as a category of identity. Rashida's competence and devotion to her job is made abundantly clear (too much so, perhaps, as the details of bank mergers and security procedures slows down the story's pace), a welcome change from the plethora of stereotypical negative depictions of the black woman in much American popular culture. The narrative structure itself is also interesting, with the first half of the book told from Rashida's point of view, the second relating the same events from Destiny's. For me, the surprise revelation that occurs mid-book wasn't very surprising, alas; I'd guessed it pretty early on, which made the novel's plot feel quite predictable. On the surface, Rashida's lesbian identity seems to play little to no role in the threat which she finds herself facing, but once the villain of the piece is unmasked, sexual identity certainly plays a role, and not a feminist one. Definitely a mixed bag for this reader.

Andrea Bramhall's Clean Slate (the ultimate winner of the 2014 Lambda Award for Lesbian Romance) takes one of the most popular, and most often laughed-at, tropes of category romance—the hero or heroine who's lost his/her memory—and gives it a lesbian spin. After being attacked and viciously beaten, art teacher Morgan Masters wakes up in the hospital thinking it's 1992, not 2014. She doesn't remember her kids (13-year-old Tristan and his younger sister, Maddie); she doesn't remember her mother's death; she doesn't even remember Erin, the woman with whom she's been in love for the past fifteen years. And she certainly doesn't remember that three weeks ago, she asked Erin for a divorce.

Given that Morgan moved out without ever explaining what went wrong, and hasn't seen her family since, Erin feels caught between anger, fear, and guilt, especially when she finds herself even more attracted to the "younger," more carefree version of amnesiac Morgan than she was to her more melancholy wife. Is it really wise to respond to the attraction that Morgan inspires. Can she really take Morgan back, when even Morgan herself can't explain why she left in the first place?

Morgan's lesbian identity certainly plays a role in her being subject to danger; the opening attack (which we as readers witness) appears to be motivated by her attacker's clear prejudice against lesbians. But is this the only reason? Even in this early scene, we are given hints that there's more behind Morgan's beating than a random hate crime. When the motivations behind Morgan's abrupt divorce request come to light, sexual identity once again looms large as a motivating force. The vanquishing of the villain, then, strikes a symbolic blow against all who discriminate and abuse women who choose to live their lives outside of normative heterosexual sexuality.

Clean Slate possesses both the strengths and the weaknesses of much category romance. Its quick pace, heightened emotion, and out-and-out evil villain will likely appeal to readers who don't read for deep characterization and who do not mind a few "why in the heck did she do that?" moments in their plots, as long as the story delivers excitement and angst in equal dollops.


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  2. The fact that it's against company policy to fraternize with a fellow employee makes Rashida more than reluctant to pursue a relationship with Destiny, regency romance