Private Politics, by Emma Barry

It’s been a while since I posted, and that’s because for a couple of weeks most of my reading was student papers. But now, I have finished a book! A romance novel, even. I liked the first book in Emma Barry’s Washington, D.C.-set “Easy Part” series, Special Interests, but I’m reading so little romance these days that it took me a year or so to get around to book 2, Private Politics. [ETA: I am friendly with Emma Barry on Twitter. I forgot my disclosure!]

I’m lazy and I have a cold, so here’s the blurb from the author’s website and some bullet points:

New York socialite Alyse Philips is not the airhead people take her for-she’s great at convincing D.C.’s rich and powerful to open their wallets. Never one to coast on her family’s connections, her real dream is to help charities in a bigger way. Before she can pursue her ambitions, she discovers a money-laundering scandal that’s got her signature all over it. If Alyse can’t clear her name, she’ll never work in nonprofits again.

Political blogger Liam Nussbaum has been pining after Alyse for six months, certain she’d never go for a quiet guy like him. Helping her with the investigation is a no-brainer. But going up against a seedy network of money and influence isn’t just a romantic opportunity or a chance to grab the headline that will take him into the big time-it’s a gamble that could destroy his blog’s reputation.

As Liam and Alyse dig deeper, their hearts collide alongside their ambition. Will they choose love or politics? Because in Washington, everything comes at a price.

  • Barry recently wrote a blog post about work in romance novels, and one of the things enjoy about this series is how seriously her characters take their work. In their late 20s (I think? maybe early 30s for some), her characters are at the point of settling into adult identities, deciding–or finally admitting to themselves–what they really want, and asking if the roles they started adulthood in, both professional and romantic, are the ones they really desire. It seems to me like a more mature stage of the coming of age of new adult romance: they’ve negotiated independence, but now they must make longer term choices. That’s an interesting life stage, and I like the fact that work is as big a part of the choices and changes they make as is love, and the way Barry connects the two. That certainly reflects my own experience.

  • I really like the characters in this one. Alyse is someone we don’t see that much in romance–especially contemporary, maybe? she turns up in Regencies–a woman who is confident about her looks and sex appeal, who uses her “feminine” charm in the service of the non-profit she works for, which supports girls’ literacy. As a result of her social polish and conventional femininity, she’s often underestimated, and she can use that to her advantage. But she’s coming to realize that she has underestimated herself, that she doesn’t want to play at working for a few years and then go home to New York and make the kind of marriage her parents will approve of. She has other ambitions, and she’s not sure what kind of love fits in with them. I think it’s a neat trick not to make a character like this off-putting; she seems so old-fashioned in a way. And yet it is still hard for women to break out of social and familial expectations, whether those are to be a New York socialite or an ambitious careerist. I had a lot of sympathy with Alyse as she navigated her way through these roles, choosing what worked for her.
  • I love a beta hero and I enjoyed Liam. He, too, is figuring out ambition. He runs a successful politics blog, Poindexter, that he started in college but that now has four employees (I pegged him as based on Matt Yglesias, more or less). He is torn between wanting the blog to break out really big and not wanting to give up control. He doesn’t think of himself as a “real” journalist. Alyse underestimates him at first partly because he underestimates himself. I like the ways he takes her by surprise, the way her attraction to him takes her by surprise. No insta-lust on her side.
  • Liam has loved Alyse from afar but thinks of her as out of his league (like that real journalism career–sometimes the love/work parallels are maybe a little too obvious). He has to be willing to push to get what he wants. Alyse, the woman of always-polished surfaces and calculated gestures, has to learn to love someone who isn’t polished and perfect (and who sees past her surfaces to who she really is). She has to take the leap of choosing her own life, rather than following a prescribed path.
  • So I liked the romance a lot. The rest of the plot wasn’t as strong. The financial scandal at Alyse’s work threatened to turn into a full-on suspense plot (which would have been fine) but never quite did, and was all wrapped up a little too easily. The end in general felt a bit anti-climactic; in these early books I think Barry is still figuring out how to write a convincing black moment and bring her characters back from it. I forgave this because I liked the characters and because it’s a short-ish book (70K words, so longer than a typical category romance but on the short side for single title) and they often take some shortcuts.
  • When Carina Press first started, I found their quality reliable. But there was an inexcusable number of errors in this book–missing words, mostly, some typos. It was distracting. It’s not an issue of bad writing (I like Barry’s style) but inadequate editing. If genre e-presses want to compete with self-publishing, they need to nail this stuff. Because what else do they offer?


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6 Responses to Private Politics, by Emma Barry

  1. Janine Ballard says:

    Great review. You make me want to read this even though I wasn’t as keen on Barry’s first contemporary as you were. The workplace milieu was one of the things I liked best about it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think this might bug you for some of the same reasons, but I did feel the romance arc was stronger here. You see more of Liam doing his work than Alyse, because the scandal comes out right at the start, but she thinks a lot about what work means to her and what skills she brings to it, and I found all that really interesting. I think part of what I like is that the characters are competent, if not perfect. There are some sort of chick lit elements (urban setting, 20-something making her way in work and love) but none of the poking fun at the heroine or pratfalls.

  2. Oh, goody! I always want to read more contemporary romance novels but just don’t have as broad a mental list of contemporary romance writers that I like. The kind of heroine you’re describing in this book reminds me a little of Julie James or Victoria Dahl? I feel like they sometimes have the heroines who are very confident in their looks and appeal, which is fun.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think that Julie James is a good comparison (although this book is less polished than her recent ones, and the hero is not at all a James type). But yes, the heroine who can use her femininity, has a certain kind of confidence, and is ambitious. It’s an interesting character type as it plays both to and against social expectations for women. It can be hard for me to find contemporary romance with characters I recognize from life, if you know what I mean.

  3. Sunita says:

    The heroine sounds a bit like a Mills & Boon contemporary character. I’ve read a few M&Bs where the heroine is a lot less superficial than her initial bio suggests. You used to see them in the M&Bs that were extras in the US HP line, but I don’t know where they regularly show up now. Fiona Harper and Sarah Morgan are writing single title books that have heroines that sound similar.

    My biggest handicap in reading Barry’s books is that I spend enough time reading political blogs and I have students who go into political jobs on the Hill or with party organizations, so it’s too close to home. I can’t imagine a beta-hero political blogger; all the guys I know who blog (or who are friends of friends) are incredibly driven and ambitious. You kind of have to be to rise above the herd. Klein and Yglesias may seem like adorable nerds, but they are like ducks: padding furiously beneath the surface. And I only know of one blog that hasn’t sold out to a bigger outfit when they came calling (Crooked Timber).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, good point about M&B. I have read heroines like that there too. Sometimes it’s more that they seem goofy or impractical and that’s why they are dismissed (Doukakis’s Apprentice) but there are also the under-rated socialite types.

      I know what you mean about being too close to home. You can’t help looking for things that seem wrong. Or you just want a book to take you somewhere *else* for a while.

      And in real life, I agree those bloggers have got to be fairly aggressive and self-confident. There is nothing they feel unqualified to opine on. This reminds me of a Vox podcast where they were all talking about how adopting the best textbooks was a simple way to improve schools and a Bill Gates could make a big impact by paying some a couple of million to produce a textbook using best practices. And I thought a) did you never read an article on Texas and the textbook wars? and b) have you seen a school budget? textbooks don’t get replaced that often. But hey, they had read some academic paper and were full of confident opinion. It made me realize how off they probably often are on stuff I know even less about so I don’t notice (sorry, tangent, but I knew you’d appreciate it).

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