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.