This month’s TBR Challenge theme is contemporary romance. I figured it was time for a diverse read. I’m pretty sure Delaney Diamond’s The Wrong Man, which is both cross-class and inter-racial romance, was in my TBR because Ridley recommended it. Plus, it’s fairly short and I’m in the middle of end-of-term grading.
I really liked the premise of: Talia is African-American, an upper-middle-class, career-focused, recently divorced woman, raised by a grandmother who insisted on perfection and whose ex describes her as cold. She wears heels to Home Depot. Tomas is a construction foreman, Cuban immigrant, and–well, if this were a Regency, he’d be a rake. He’s The Wrong Man for Talia. Sure, this is a cliché, like so many romance set-ups (earthy man rocks uptight woman’s world and shows her how to live, or vice versa), but when it’s done well it’s one I enjoy. This set-up reminded me a bit of the movie Something New.
The Wrong Man is about 150 pages and my feelings were: first 50 pages, pretty good!; second 50, too much sex in proportion to everything else; final 50, big conflicts resolved too quickly, and with a plot twist I hate. (I will spoil it later). Talia and Tomas know each other through mutual friends; they’ve always liked sparring with each other, now she’s single, and you know what comes next, despite their initial resistance. The middle used sex as a short-cut for their growing intimacy. The sex scenes were well-written and I enjoyed reading them. But what about the rest of their lives? Talia is supposedly dedicated to her career, yet she and Tomas never talk about it. The main scene set at her work is when Tomas lures her into stairwell sex, making her late for a meeting with her boss. This made me a) see Talia’s character as inconsistent and b) see her as a fool. Then in the last third all the looming tensions over their class differences and different life goals (country boy who wants a family, city girl who chose career ahead of kids), not to mention the way Talia can’t stand up to her grandmother, blow up big and are resolved too quickly. (I did like that race and culture differences were never seen as problems, except maybe by Talia’s grandmother.)
OK, about that spoiler. Stop here if you don’t want to read it.
Talia gets pregnant. Because she was a couple of weeks late getting her Depo shot. This is a woman who was married for ten years but refused to “give her husband children” because she put her career first. She never, of course, considers abortion. Look. People change their minds and I felt I was supposed to see this as a sign of how Talia was unconsciously (and then more consciously) falling in love with Tomas; he changes her, helps her see what really makes her happy vs. what pleases her grandmother. And I also know that a lot of pregnancies are accidental. But I have never known a highly-educated, career-focused woman who didn’t want a kid who was not super careful about birth control.
So again, it was hard to see Talia as a consistent, believable character and this felt like a plot point used solely to push the resolution forward faster. Which wasn’t at all necessary, because other things, like Talia’s decision not to invite Tomas to one of her grandmother’s stuffy parties (where her grandmother plans to introduce her to some Right Men), bring the conflicts to a head just fine: does Talia think he’s beneath her, do they really care about each other, can they make a go of this? all those questions are raised without the baby. I was interested in the conflicts, but they didn’t get the time and space that would do them justice.
At the end of the book, Talia, who never learned to cook because servants did that, is about to make pancakes. This conclusion made me feel that far from Tomas being The Wrong Man, she was The Wrong Woman–her career focus, her upscale clothes, her urban loft: wrong. A mom making pancakes in her country house: right. The only change Tomas makes is deciding he can be monogamous, which is a big deal, of course, but it isn’t shown as a huge change the way Talia’s is. She fits in with his life. This didn’t sit well with me.
I did enjoy reading The Wrong Man, but the intriguing premise wasn’t fleshed out enough. Ultimately, I didn’t care much about these people because they, especially Talia, didn’t feel real to me. I had to make a lot of assumptions and fill in a lot of gaps to believe in their relationship.
The main reason I’ve read so much less romance lately is because too much of what I’ve read is like this. There’s so much unrealized potential, it’s frustrating to read. I think the current romance publishing environment, with its pressure to produce at a very fast rate, is a big part of the problem. It’s not because romance writers are worse than other writers, but I don’t think this is a climate in which most authors can do their best work. I don’t know if it’s how I pick books in different genres or the different publishing context in romance, but the undercooked book is something I encounter more often in this genre.