This is the first novel in an ongoing series that features characters of diverse racial, ethnic, and sexual identities navigating romantic relationships in our contemporary world. So far, American Dreamer is my favorite novel in the series because the central characters have great chemistry, and their respective passion projects represent two of my favorite things: food and books. Nesto Vasquez runs an Afro-Caribbean food truck, and moves to Ithaca, New York, from New York City to both be closer to his family and to try and cultivate a viable business. Jude Fuller works at the local library, where he’s advocating for a mobile library to serve folks in the rural reaches of the library district. The novel uses the character Misty to show how white privilege and homophobia are wielded in seemingly subtle or coded ways to try and derail the two men and their projects that serve to enhance the community and reach many people. The series celebrates friendship as found family—both Jude and Nesto have strong friendships that provide family-like bonds with unwavering support. While Nesto also has close relationships to his family of origin, Jude doesn’t; the novel encourages readers to think about how much of themselves they’re willing to sacrifice in order to maintain the appearance of traditional family. This steamy, interracial romance will leave you hungry for Afro-Caribbean food and social justice.
Hibbert’s novel, set in her native England, tells the enemies-to-lovers story of Redford “Red” Morgan and Chloe Brown. Red is a visual artist, who struggles with a creative block after an abusive relationship. He currently serves as the supervisor of the apartment building where Chloe lives, and is what we in Romancelandia call a cinnamon roll—a soft, sweet, and nurturing character. Chloe, outwardly prickly and blunt, is a web designer whose life is shaped by—and currently limited by—her chronic illness, fibromyalgia. She resolves to get a life, and makes a list of tasks that will shake up her world and help her get a life: “ride a motorbike, go camping, have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex” and so on (Hibbert 25). Through a series of events, Chloe enlists Red to help her complete the items on her list, and adds to her list as she falls for him. This interracial, interclass relationship faces external challenges as the characters make assumptions about each other based on some of their identity categories (Red is White, and is from a lower socioeconomic class, while Chloe is Black and wealthy). The novel engages thoughtfully with the impact of abusive relationships, as well as the ongoing toll of chronic illness, and how both of these life challenges impact future relationships. I love how Hibbert shows romance blooming as both characters reconnect to their own passions and power.
Cozy cafes. Supportive, quirky communities. Idyllic charm. Contemporary small town romance invites me into a world that is like my own small town life, with better clothes, and greater drama. My love of small town romance is long lasting, from my earliest romance reads by Jennifer Crusie, my devotion to Gilmore Girls, and my seasonal zeal for Hallmark holiday movies, for better and for worse.
One of my recent academic projects has been to explore the contours of the Hallmark holiday movie’s overwhelming whiteness and straightness. In December, I presented some of my research at a local, small town library, and was heartened by the support from the audience. They, too, want Hallmark to more accurately represent our small towns, which are always more diverse than they seem, in many ways. As I dip back in to small town romances, I want to read stories with communities that aren’t homogenous and purely idyllic, my biggest critiques of Gilmore Girls and Hallmark movies. I yearn for the romance shaped by the contours of the realities of small town life.
I was eager to read Tracey Livesay’s latest novel, Sweet Talkin’ Lover. I love the premise of the series, which focuses on the four college friends, “The Ladies of Lefevre,” who reunite each year for a girls trip, the series title. The backbone of friendship between the women reminds me of my own college bff’s, our getaways, and diverging and converging lives post-college. If anything, I wanted even more of the friendship, and am eager to meet more of these women in the next novels in the series.
We meet our heroine Caila Harris when she is vacationing with her friends; they challenge her devotion to work and distance from her beloved grandfather Pop-Pop, and then support her when she learns that he died. Caila’s grief causes her to stumble at work, where as a woman of color she has worked harder than anyone to achieve status and recognition. Sent to small town of Bradleton, Virginia on a heartless corporate project, Caila grapples with the ways that her professional drive have impacted her relationships. While this is a common trope that often ends with one of the characters—often the woman—traveling a lesser career path, Livesay brilliantly uses this tension to showcase Caila’s creative problem-solving and ability to achieve the seemingly impossible. The professional and romantic resolution in this novel intertwine in the most satisfying ways.
Our hero, Wyatt Bradley, is steeped in generational wealth, white privilege, and overall hotness that he’s somewhat aware of. As mayor of Bradleton, he has a vested interest in protecting the town from a factory shutdown that would devastate the community. His attraction to Caila threatens his ability to put the town, and his work as mayor, first. Livesay shows how Wyatt’s numerous advantages are actually a gilded cage, limiting Wyatt’s true passion, and stifling his ability to live on his own terms.
This slow burn read drew me in for the delectable romance between Caila and Wyatt. The novel also encouraged me to consider what we as individuals owe our families, communities, ourselves. Living in a series of towns that have seen numerous manufacturers close, leaving workers unemployed and diminishing the communities in various ways, the novel makes the case that corporations can creatively respond to multiple stakeholders, including the communities they inhabit, through woman-led creative problem solving. And that’s another happy ending I can get behind.
I’ve been fascinated with Gilded Age literature ever since I read my first Edith Wharton novel—for fun, in high school. I started with Ethan Frome (1911), one of the darker novels that’s so imbued with the cold spareness of winter that I think it’s titled Winter. Yikes. Wharton’s novels haunt me with their visions of love denied, and seemingly inevitable—and untimely—death lurking behind the glittering façade of the denizens of Old New York. Her ability to skewer the very society that she’s privileged to inhabit has always intrigued me, and even inspired me to write a scholarly analysis of The House of Mirth and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (details below).
Imagine my delight in discovering Joanne Shupe’s historical novels set during the Gilded Age. All the glitter—and struggle—of Wharton and Dreiser with happy endings and love triumphant rather than meaningless, avoidable deaths. Hooray! I recently read The Prince of Broadway (2020), and loved the lush details of turn-of-the century New York, shown through the excess of the Bronze House, hero Clayton Madden’s gambling hall; heroine Florence Green’s fashionable gowns; tricked out carriages; swoon-worthy bathrooms, and more.
What I most love about Shupe’s novel is Florence’s spirit, will, and drive to live on her terms. She won’t settle for a “safe” loveless marriage, despite her parents’ wishes. She wants to openly live her dreams—and desires— without shame. Even better, her dream to create a gaming hall for women helps other women live more boldly in the public sphere rather than gambling at house parties, tucked away from the public eye, and missing out of the lavish community that such establishments provide. She’s not afraid to marry a man considered nouveau riche, despite her own status in one of the grand, established families. And, most satisfying, her family, from her wise, eccentric grandmother to her stern yet devoted father, eventually support her professional and romantic desires.
The sexual tension and attraction between Florence and Clay smolder and burn throughout the novel. The novel features one of the hotter voyeur scenes I’ve ever read, that serves to both heighten the desire between Florence and Clay and highlight their mutual self-sufficiency. Despite their different backgrounds, they are incredibly well-matched equals in and out of the bedroom. In a pivotal scene, Clay tells her, “If you are hoping to discover that I’m the hero in this melodrama, you’ll be sorely disappointed,” to which she replies “I never asked for a hero. What I wanted was a partner” (296).
I was also pleased with the ending of the novel, and Florence’s revelation that motherhood is not for her. It’s the rare historical romance that doesn’t automatically assume motherhood, and depict motherhood in the epilogue. It’s even rarer to have a heroine openly declare her desire to remain childfree. As an intentionally childfree person myself, I appreciate this aspect of Florence’s character and the reminder that there have always been women who opted not to have children.
I can’t help but compare Florence to Lily Bart, Wharton’s protagonist in The House of Mirth (1905). Lily, like Florence, cannot face marrying for stability and respectability. Unlike Florence, Lily also can’t convince herself to marry someone on the fringes of society until it’s too late. Lily is trapped in the gilded cage that society has crafted, and none of her attempts to escape it or more comfortably inhabit it work. On the other hand, Florence sees the cage for what it is and refuses to be confined. After she tells her father her plan to opening a gambling hall for women, he forbids her from following this path, and says “You will do what I say” (303). She retorts: “ In other words, marry a childish, selfish man like Chauncey. Settle down and have kids, and oversee his household while I wither and die from living inside a gilded cage” (303). His disapproval only heightens her conviction to live her dream, even if it means doing it on her own. That Florence flourishes, challenging patriarchy even as she is bound by its confines in many ways, provides a more hopefully and empowering path than the tragedy that befalls Lily Bart. Both novels critique the same social structures, but romance allows its heroines to live their dreams, while literary fiction often sacrifices them in supposedly instructive—and most often dissatisfying or traumatic—ways. This is one reason I most love reading historical romance alongside the classics that shaped my identity as a literary scholar. Romance novels suggest that there is always another way to live ones dreams and achieve emotional and personal fulfillment. As I tweeted recently, Florence Green is 2020 goals.