The August TBR Challenge theme is “Old School,” a book published 10 or more years ago. “Old School” (or at least “Old Skool”) is a term I associate with historical romance for some reason, but having finished Dunnett’s Game of Kings just now (yes! I did it!), I wasn’t ready for more historical fiction. Then I remembered Sandra Kitt’s Adam and Eva, in my TBR because of Sunita’s review–which turns out to date from last year’s Old School month.
Published in 1984, this was the first Harlequin category romance by an African-American featuring African-American characters. I didn’t like it quite as much as Sunita did, but it did hold my interest, both because of that place in romance history and for its own sake. That in itself struck me as an “old school” feature, because I find that many newer romances aim at hitting a reader in the feels and have little to offer someone who doesn’t connect emotionally. That wasn’t true of Adam and Eva.
At 29, Eva has rebuilt her life following the deaths of her husband and daughter in a house fire. Now she is embarking on a vacation to St. John in the US Virgin Islands. On the plane, Eva meets Diane Maxwell, a little girl about the age her own daughter would have been, who is going to spend two weeks with her father, a marine biologist. A big, strong, hot, gruff and intimidating marine biologist. (Was naming the characters in a story set in a kind of paradise “Adam and Eva” Kitt’s nod to the “first-ness” of her book? Probably not, but it’s not an allusion that is picked up in the novel and I did wonder….)
Although the book takes place in just a few weeks, making this a whirlwind romance in real life, its pace is leisurely. Both Adam, whose divorce has left him bitter, and Eva, still grieving, are reluctant to begin a relationship. I liked the slow development, the advance and retreat, of their interactions, and the way Diane is a person they both care about rather than a plot moppet. There are other things I liked less: that Eva seems so inexperienced after several years of happy marriage to her high school sweetheart (like, she’s shocked by being on top during sex), and that the passion Adam awakens in her frightens her. Those elements felt kind of formulaic-Old School, although Kitt made them plausible for these characters.
The way that Kitt handled her characters’ race also struck me as somewhat Old School–by which I mean different from how an author would likely approach them today; I don’t mean this as a criticism, it just interested me. From the cover of the book, we’re well aware that these characters are African-American, and there are reminders all the way through in references to skin color and hairstyles, to Adam and his first wife dreaming of being the first black husband-wife marine biology team, or to Howard being mentioned alongside Georgetown as a place Eva could study law in DC. Race isn’t an issue in the book, just part of who the characters are.
Eva enjoys being in a new place, the first time she’s been out of New Jersey, without in any way exoticizing St. John or its residents, and that was entirely refreshing. The locals are people with whom she interacts, not colorful natives. But I was struck by how little culture there is in the book, especially considering it is set on a Caribbean island. I wondered, for instance, if either Adam or Eva had Caribbean heritage, a question that isn’t raised. There’s a scene in a ruined sugar plantation, but neither character thinks about the enslaved Africans who would have worked there. I think a 2016 book (at least one by an African-American author) would be unlikely to elide that history. Perhaps authors would feel freer now to include some reflection on this history. Perhaps they’re more likely to feel they should. Or perhaps Kitt chose to give her characters an island holiday in which they didn’t have to think about such things, the most “romantic fantasy” element of the book. In any case, having discovered that Kitt wrote a sequel featuring Diane in 2010, I’m curious to read it and see whether her approach to such questions is different.
An interesting classic with a well-drawn setting, realistic characters and a focus on the heroine, well worth reading.