TBR Challenge: Unfinished Business, by Karyn Langhorne

This month’s theme for the TBR Challenge is Contemporary, and I pulled Karyn Langhorne’s Unfinished Business (published in 2007) from the pile because I felt it was time for a romance in my “read more authors of color” rotation. It was in there in the first place because I’m interested in politically-themed romance and because I really liked Langhorne’s A Personal Matter.

I didn’t like this one quite as much, but let’s start with the good stuff.

Left-leaning, African-American elementary-school teacher Erica Johnson and Southern conservative white senator Mark Newman meet cute when she disrupts a Senate hearing to protest cuts to a school lunch program and challenges him to explain to her fourth graders why paying for the war in Iraq is more important. This leads to a TV interview with the pair at Erica’s school, and Mark’s return challenge to her to spend a week in his (fictional) Southern state and see things from a different point of view.

They’re attracted to each other from the start, but can two such different people learn to get along? And is dating an African American woman going to kill Mark’s political career? And who’s sending the threatening notes with compromising pictures of the two, taken when they were sure no one was around?

Enemies to lovers is a tricky trope, because there’s a fine line between sexy verbal sparring and non-stop, wearisome arguments. This is a problem Langhorne and her characters recognize, as when Mark thinks:

It was easy to toss off glib one-liners, always easier to turn the thing into one big sparring match. A verbal war. But he was beginning to understand he’d never win this woman that way.

Erica is prickly and abrasive; as her friend Angelique says, she’s quick to “cast [people] in a narrow little role,” unwilling to see there’s more to Mark than the surface labels she’s applied to him. Mark, a widower and war vet, uses arrogance and charm to wall off his feelings and keep people at a distance. Their romance is about learning to let down their defenses, look past the surface, and find common ground. And about being taken aback by an attraction to someone who instantly “feels right,” even though your rational mind can’t make sense of that connection. I liked Langhorne’s exploration of these feelings a lot. And although I felt she sometimes strayed onto the “annoying argument” side of the line, I appreciated in both her books I read that the heroine is not always nice, understanding, or emotionally intelligent.

Political romance is a tricky beast, too, since many readers want escapism, not a reminder of difficult real-life issues–and because characters with strong political viewpoints can alienate some readers. Langhorne handles this adroitly by keeping her politics largely at the level of apple-pie sloganeering most people can sign on for: Feeding kids is good, dead kids are bad. Sometimes war is necessary, sacrifice, defending our freedom. (Also, Mark is hardly conservative by tea-party standards. Aside from his support for the war, in which he was joined by a whole whack of Democrats, we don’t know much about his politics). At the end, our hero and heroine may differ over whether the war is necessary, but are united in the desire to see our troops come home safely. Tie off neatly with a yellow ribbon.

On the one hand, this serves the romance well. And it was kind of refreshing, in this partisan age, to take the view that people of good conscience can differ, and that there is still common ground and mutual respect to be found. On the other hand, it ended up making political differences seem superficial–they’re both passionate people who care about justice and helping others, so what does it matter what side they’re on?–which is rather problematic. And it meant that the novel doesn’t really delve deeply into how people with opposing values in which they believe passionately can learn to live together. I wanted to see more of that.

As for what didn’t work for me: the suspense subplot. I’m trying not to be spoilery, but it was obvious to me what was going on from a very early scene, and almost as obvious who was responsible, and it took an agonizingly long time for the characters to clue in. (This is something in addition to the mysterious notes/photos Erica is getting; the source of those was less obvious to me). I didn’t like the way the villain was depicted; I thought it was over the top in a largely realistic romance. I didn’t think a suspense plot was needed at all. The main romance could have used more development, and so could an intriguing secondary romance that got almost no page time at all. And although Erica’s “bitchiness” was refreshingly human, Mark’s media director Bitsi (aka “Bitchy,” if you’re Erica) was too close to a cardboard Evil Other Woman–and the skinny blonde white woman vs. curvy African American heroine was awfully stereotypical too.

Despite those problems, I found a lot to like in this romance. Langhorne seems to have moved on to writing YA/NA post-apocalyptic stories under the name Karyn Langhorne Folan. I suspect that’s because books like hers are a hard sell in contemporary romance, but I’m sorry, because I wish there were more of her heroines like Erica–and Alayna from A Personal Matter–to discover.

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7 Responses to TBR Challenge: Unfinished Business, by Karyn Langhorne

  1. lawless says:

    I’ve lost track of who’s read what, so you may have read and blogged about this, but have you read any of Emma Barry’s books set in Washington, D.C.? I have the first in the series (I think the title is Special Interests) but don’t remember the name of the series. The last one is about a pair of campaign workers apparently inspired by James Carville and Mary Matalin who are similarly situated to the couple in this book.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I read the first of that series (and enjoyed it) and the others are in my TBR. Whenever I think “these people could never work it out” I remind myself of Carville and Matalin. Though I always wonder how much people like that are taking sides out of principle and how much of it is just the job–the “game” of politics is something they have in common, unlike these characters.

  2. KeiraSoleore says:

    Given my utter distaste of the state of politics in this country, this book would not fly for me, because I simply cannot possibly believe that these two could find love. It’s too charged with R/L negativity for me to suspend disbelief to be convinced that for this couple a HEA works.

    Pity, because I’d like to see more books like this published where readers with various differences triumph over those differences.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think she made it work by having both of their politics, especially Mark’s, be kind of vague, and making him–the one with real political power–be fairly moderate. But it’s harder to not see their fighting as of a piece with the nasty public fight of politics these days. I think this type of story is a harder sell (though I, too, appreciate books where people have to work out real differences).

      I think it helped me as a reader that I’ve lived outside of the US for 20 years and the politics aren’t quite as close to home for me as they used to be.

  3. azteclady says:

    Keira Soleare said everything I would have said.

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