The first book I read from Entangled Publishing’s Indulgence line (the only one I’ve tried so far) made me wary of trying another. My second try was more successful. The third, Stephanie Draven’s In Bed With the Opposition, I loved.
The opening set-up and some basic tropes felt familiar: Grace Santiago is loyal and a bit self-sacrificing. She failed out of law-school thanks to the fallout of her fling with Ethan Castle, and in the book’s opening she runs into him–still gorgeous and sexy, now rich and famous–at a Crab Fest that her boss, octogenarian Maryland Senator Kip Halloway, has insisted on attending. I didn’t love the fact that Grace still wasn’t over Ethan, or that she’d spent years letting the senator’s grandson string her along because of her unrequited conviction that he’s perfect for her. It’s not the era of Persuasion any more, and a woman who can’t move on and make a life for herself seems not fully adult. But Grace knows that too: in the opening scene, she thinks of herself as “a hound” trailing after her boss, and she’s ready to break out of that role. It’s clear that she’s ambitious and good at her job. Ethan’s return to her life might be the catalyst for change, but she already felt the need for it. Moreover, we learn that Ethan’s perspective on their past relationship is very different from Grace’s, and she has to reconsider history, and her own self-image, in light of that. Draven began deconstructing the tropey set-up almost as soon as she introduced it.
This is really the heroine’s story. Grace becomes more assertive and self-confident over the course of the book, determined to go after what she wants: “This time, Ethan Castle wasn’t just going to happen to her. This time, he was a choice. Her choice.” Ethan is less well-developed. He has a melodramatic backstory that isn’t fully resolved or tied into the romance, though I could see how it did tie in (I didn’t feel it was necessary, though). Grace, the smart good girl afraid to let go, risk and mess up, was someone I could identify with, and maybe that helped make her feel more fully rounded.
The political background is unusual in category romance (I described this on Twitter as “Harlequin Presents meets The West Wing“). Grace’s loyalty to her aging senator boss, who is past his prime (I can think of a few real-life parallels), is believable and thoughtfully explored. I liked the complexity of his character–for instance, he makes sexist gaffes, but has a history of hiring and promoting women long before it was common. Blain, the golden boy grandson Grace aspires to marry, turned out to be more interesting than I expected, too. The secondary characters add depth to Grace’s story. Unlike many romance heroines, she’s enmeshed in a family and community.
I loved the voice and humor in Draven’s writing. Grace the “hound” thinks of her cell-phone as “her own personal dog whistle.” Seeing Ethan at the Crab Fest, she thinks she isn’t going to let Ethan “smash his way through her thick shell to get to the tender insides.” Ethan thinks that working “to reelect a fossil like Kip Halloway . . . would be the final fucking snowflake in the winter of his professional discontent.” Oh, and the sexual tension is great. (I would note that the copy-editing fell apart in the last quarter. Also, a couple of times Ethan refers to Grace’s “Latin curves.” That wouldn’t have bothered me in her point of view, because it would have seemed kind of America Ferrera in Real Women Have Curves, but from his it seemed like he was stereotyping and exoticizing her.)
Grace and Ethan and their story have some of the exaggerated features (“kabuki, silent film,” I told myself at a few exasperated points) of category romance, but their emotions and interactions are realistic. This romance was a delight to read, especially in an often-disheartening election season.
Other Readers Reading
One of my favorite things about the book blogosphere is the peek it offers into other readers’ minds. I’m fascinated by how books work on different readers, and how other readers approach books (that’s part of what drew me to teaching English). Here are some recent examples I enjoyed:
- Moriah Jovan has a guest post on “The PlaceHolder Heroine” at Dear Author. This post got some people’s backs up, probably because Moriah speculated on other readers (could we all agree that any statement about why “readers” like something popular is not meant to apply to every reader, and not get mad if it doesn’t apply to us? Probably not. These questions are interesting to think about, but seem like a minefield of potential offense these days). I loved seeing Moriah explore an idea she hadn’t fully figured out. Her thoughts are far more tentative than conclusive. That led to some thoughtful responses in the comments.
- Megan Mulry has embarked on a project to read the first ten Harlequin Presents novels, and she blogs about one at HarlequinJunkie. I like following Megan because although we have some basic things in common–same age, married with two kids, came late to romance-reading (also, the plot of her first book is one of my recurring youthful daydreams)–she’s pretty much my opposite in personality and, often, in reader taste. I like seeing such a different perspective, which often challenges me to think about my gut reactions to my reading.
- If you missed the live-tweeting, Miriam E. Burstein of The Little Professor also has a blog post on Clandestine Classics‘ version of Jane Eyre (there’s a link to the Storified tweets as well).
- On a very different subject, Rohan Maitzen has a great piece at the LA Review of Books on George Eliot’s secular ethics. She connects her reading of Silas Marner to contemporary American prejudice against atheists and concludes:
Against those “argumentative tendencies” that seem to define the cultures of atheism and religion alike today, Eliot offers us novels like Silas Marner, novels that express her own faith that with sufficient understanding and attention to what is apart from themselves, people can be their own salvation. It’s a vision at once rigorous and humane, one that could lead us to a new, shared “basis of moral solidarity.”
That hope for respect, sympathy and reconciliation seems vain, but also sorely needed, in this divisive election season.