READING/REVIEW: Kristen Ashley’s LAW MAN, Contemporary Cross-Class Romance

Time and again, romance readers contend with harsh verdicts aimed at the genre from non-romance readers.  It is interesting, however, that within the romance-reading community, gradations of snootiness exist as well.  Those judgements are aimed at sub-genres, or category romance, or individual authors, or books, or whatever chip a reader/reviewer carries on her shoulder.  Miss Bates herself has a certain distaste for the silliness factor of paranormal romance, indulging in a sweeping generalization and dismissal of hundreds of beloved and worthy stories.  Kristen Ashley’s novels, Miss Bates suspects, have received their share of disdain.

Law ManWhen Miss Bates read Kristen Ashley’s opening page for Law Man, she understood why Ashley’s novels come under scornful fire: sloppy writing, bizarro switches in point of view, a certain sentimentality, the hero’s machismo, heroine’s naïveté, and rugrats’ cuteness … all at the mercy of a reader’s sneering lip curls and exasperated eye-rolls.  Miss Bates too, at first note, slipped into derision mode.  However, by the end of chapter one, she was eating humble pie.  Ashley’s devil-may-care prose and not-politically-correct characterization and narrative won her.  Miss Bates discovered that Ashley wrote, in her breezy style, a contemporary cross-class romance, a perceptive portrait of class and status, a debate between nature/upbringing and individual will, between determinism and free will.

Detective Mitch Lawson is a middle-class, college-educated, no-working-beat cop.  Mara Hanover is “pink collar,” a successful retail salesperson, but nevertheless one of the vast number of women who occupy precarious service-industry positions, working mainly on commission.  Suffice to say, hero and heroine are people, as originally defined (thank you, Oxford American Dictionary) by the word “proletarian,” “having no wealth in property.”  (They certainly do not own the “means of production!”)  Fear not, Miss Bates is not doing a Marxist reading (she wouldn’t even know how), merely sharing some fascinating, to her at least, observations regarding class and status that permeate Ashley’s romance.  Her reading may be erroneous, but she’s going to plunge into it anyway.

Denver, Colorado denizens, Detective Mitch Lawson and Mara Hanover rent apartments in the same complex.  Mara has been in love with Mitch for four years.  She’d noticed him when she was living with another man, and even though a parade of women came and went in and out of his apartment.  She doesn’t think she’s in his league.  One evening, way after the live-in man was gone, when Mara’s bathroom faucet runs wild, Mitch helps her out by changing the washer.  Thus begins a back-and-forth courting dance, as Mitch battles Mara’s self-perception to win her.  When Mara has to foster her drug-addicted petty criminal cousin’s kids, Billy and Billie, Mitch steps in to help.  When those kids and Mara are threatened, Mitch does everything in his power to protect them.  He tells her he’s fallen in love with all of them.  It takes a lot of convincing to get Mara to believe that a guy “like him” could want a girl “like her.”  Within this seemingly simple plot, a world of status and pain is explored and resolved … while Ashley also tells a sexy, moving love story.

What first strikes the reader of Ashley’s novel is her slapdash, fast-moving prose.  Miss Bates, who usually eschews first-person narration, loved Mara’s voice, her innocence, goodness, and humour.  Sentences are choppy and repetitive, often redundant, but Miss Bates would argue that the prose matches the “proletariat” setting, narrative, and resolution.  Form and content are perfectly matched, as perfect as Mitch and Mara are for each other.  There’s no time to waste; this story needs to be told and the luxury of elegant prose is “bourgeois,” suggesting the leisure and pretension that come with class.  This is rough-and-tumble story-telling, without any attempt at finesse, but it is no less effective.  One of the most interesting things that Ashley does, if the reader takes note, is play with Mitch’s dialogue-diction.  When Mitch talks to Mara, he’s all “baby” and cut off syllables, contractions, and one-syllable words, reaching in to the heart of the matter, aggressively breaking down her barriers, while protecting her soft heart.  When he’s on the job, diction is clipped, clear, and “educated,” sentences longer, vocabulary more complex.  He’s not looking down on Mara: the Mitch who’s with Mara is his true self, the man he wants to be, the champion of the underdog and the vulnerable; the other stuff, that’s for the job.  If it helps him be a better detective, put away more parasites and those who exploit the weak and helpless and vulnerable, he’ll use whatever means he has at his disposal.

Mara is a salesperson at Pierson’s Mattress and Bed: “I was a salesperson.  This wasn’t a surprising job.  This was a boring job.  Then again, I was a boring person.  He was a police detective.”  Thus, she raises barriers of class and status and worth between herself and Mitch.  Yet, she pays her rent promptly, has a nest-egg for emergencies, lives within her means, and never indulges in more than she can afford.  We learn that Mara “was a woman who had lived alone her entire adult life.”  She lights candles and listens to music to unwind.  She is self-effacing, funny, and utterly loveable; she is a loyal and loving friend.  While her heart is classy, her life-style and diction are working-class.  Doing her job is the most important part of her day.  That is as true of Mitch as it is of Mara.  While they enjoy what they do, especially Mitch who fulfilled a dream in making detective, they nevertheless acknowledge that working steadily is essential to survival.  When Billy and Billie come into the picture, Mara realizes she and her wards are one pay-cheque away from poverty.  Even with her pay-cheque, their lives are circumscribed.  Mitch spends, pun intended, much of the novel taking care of Mara and the kids financially.  He cares for them when they’re sick, buys the Tylenol and groceries, cooks for them, gives them a day at an amusement park, buys them everyday essentials such as shampoo and clean, new clothes.  His contribution is financial, but also psychological, buying them things that make them feel cherished, not charity cases, such as frivolous hair doodads for Billie and a baseball mitt for Billy.  As Mara says, “He wasn’t just a nice guy.  He was a really freaking great one.”

Miss Bates loved the nitty-gritty of financial necessity, even the trips to Target that define their lives because this defines the lives of most North American men and women.  There are no dukes here and more importantly, the la-la-land of magical financial choices and ease that are part and parcel of contemporary romance aren’t here either.  These things are important and they are not easy to ensure.  Yes, this is still fantasy in the form of Mara’s “dream man,” Mitch.  Most women, single mothers, struggle daily, alone, to ensure that their children have what they need.  Ashley manages to tap into every fear, every deprivation that children like Billy and Billie and women like Mara experience.  She creates Mitch to answer to all of them; nevertheless, underlying the fantasy, harsh reality is the bone beneath the skin.

The first thing we learn about Mara when we enter her head-space is that she has a “Classification System” whereby she categorizes people on their worth.  She is, at most, a three, she tells us, in light of Mitch’s ten-point-five-ness.  If there is an argument for the cross-class romance theme, then Mara’s Classification System is it.  Mara may not be educated, but she is smart and has figured out how the world judges a person’s worth: her past and her present status determine hers.  Mitch is the hammer that breaks down these barriers, the one who goes beyond the social constraints of where she came from, of what she is worth economically … to what she’s worth as a person, a loving, funny, beautiful, caring person.  Here’s a sampling of what he contends with, “I allowed myself to pretend this table with Billy, Billie, and Mitch was me and my beautiful family.  Something I never had.  Something I always wanted.  Something that wasn’t for the likes of me.”  And Mitch does it sexily and beautifully, Miss Bates might add.  Mara, we learn, comes from “lumpen-proletariat,” those who do not contribute to society with their labour, petty criminals, parasitical and shiftless, such as her cousin, Bill, and trailer trash mother and aunt, who show up to make trouble.

Miss Bates acknowledges that some readers will find Mitch’s machismo pushy, overbearing, and disrespectful.  But readers, like Mara herself, will recognize the honour, care, decency, and morality beneath the bluster.  Besides, Mitch has to come down hard on Mara because the barriers of class and inferiority complex are deeply embedded.  When Mara relents, he does too.  (And, he’s just so darn charming.)  Miss Bates was fascinated by Mara’s observations about Mitch’s apartment, furniture, clothes, and family as a way of distinguishing between them.  It seemed as if even these, in their fineness and expense, set him apart from her … until he convinces her otherwise.  When he talks about his mother, she points out that his mother probably wears “twin sets.”  She does, except he doesn’t see how this sets them apart, but Mara does … and we see it too, truth be told.  He doesn’t really get the class thing, but he sure gets Mara’s vulnerability.  He convinces her they’re equals: it’s not where you came from or what you do that makes you who you are, it’s how you’ve risen above the circumstances that you were dealt.  Case in point, Mara’s cousin Bill, who could have been what Mara is, but chose the life of petty crime instead.  In this sense, this is most definitely NOT a Marxist reading of class … it is an affirmation of the American Dream, but a nicely circumscribed one, a decent, clean, loving one, where family and love are more important than financial success.  Work is necessary, but it doesn’t define a person.  Even Mara comes to see that, “Mitch was right.  My classification system was bullshit.  Bottom line, what I was is a decent person and I always had been.”  In these few phrases, Mara, with Mitch’s tough love, persistence, and tenderness, knocks down arguments of class and status, as well as the notion that nature wins over nurture, with the caveat that Mara nurtured herself … until Mitch came along.

Law Man concludes in an interesting way.  Without indulging in spoilers, Mitch and Mara, though sticklers for adhering to the straight-and-narrow, (especially Mara who feels she’s being judged on the basis of her past and lack of eduction) ally themselves with the lumpen-proletariat to save their family.  If this isn’t Marxist, then it’s Bakunin! 😉 This is the weakest part of the novel, the most fantastical, when the motorcycle club, Chaos, is embroiled in their lives.  But Miss Bates overlooks it in light of the fascinating way in which Ashley creates this viable, believable contemporary cross-class romance.  Oh please note, dear reader, there is a wonderful epilogue, one that brings our original (thank you, Oxford American Dictionary) definition of “proletariat” full circle by pointing to its addendum, “a person having no wealth in property, who only served the state by producing offspring.”  This is really what the “baby-filled epilogue” is all about …

And, by the way, the romance is wonderful: full of banter, sexy, tender, and funny.  Mitch and Mara work their way to understanding and love.  Miss Bates’ criticism lies in the novel’s length: though a well-developped build-up to love-making and avowals of love make for a great romance, this baby did go on too long. The veering-off into the bizarro motorcycle club conclusion was also jarring after the novel’s sustained but never tedious domesticity.  Just the same, Miss Bates is hooked and she’ll be looking forward to some “lumpen-proletariat” romance in Motorcycle Man.  As for Law Man, Miss Bates finds therein, akin to its hero, Detective Mitch Lawson, that “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.

Ashley’s Law Man has been knocking around since 2012, but it’s been available from Forever (Grand Central Publishing) since December 17th.

Miss Bate is grateful to the publisher, Forever, for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.

Miss Bates is fascinated by the idea of contemporary cross-class romance, Law Man now a favourite.  She’d argue, in a more limited sense, Betty Neels’ novels are cross-class romances.  In a superficial way, some Harlequin Presents titles are too.  Another more recent and brilliant example of contemporary cross-class romance is Cara McKenna’s After Hours.  Have you read any?  Loved?  Disliked?  Please, share with Miss Bates in the comments.  She’d love to hear your thoughts and/or suggestions.

13 thoughts on “READING/REVIEW: Kristen Ashley’s LAW MAN, Contemporary Cross-Class Romance

  1. I love your defense of Ashley’s style–that she’s a lovely realization of style for the story she’s telling and the characters she’s writing. I hadn’t thought about it that way but it’s absolutely true.

    I find her to be a triumph of voice, though I would say that I’ve read very little of her extensive corpus because when I tried to glom her works, I began to find them repetitious. A little Ashley goes a long way.

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    • Yes! Miss Bates thinks her defense of Ashley is a defense of substance over style and a nod to romance as an expression of “the sigh of the oppressed creature,” though it’s not acceptable to think in those terms, is it? It’s all about empowerment … which is a trap as much as anything else.

      On a different note, glomming any romance writer, Miss Bates would say, is tiresome. Even a much better stylist, like Balogh, who’s Miss Bates’ only glom attempt, had her running for the hills after book three. And it’s true of any writer, not just romance writers, Miss Bates once read all of Eliot, all of Hardy, and all of Lawrence … she certainly had trouble sticking it out with them as well.

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  2. What a fascinating review. I’ve been looking forward to this one, Miss Bates, thank you for sharing it with us!

    I am puzzled, though, by some of your points about class. It sounds as if the Oxford dictionary definition of proletariat doesn’t really apply here, since Mitch is presumably middle class (more or less bourgeois in the modern rather than original sense of the term). And in your interesting observations about how Mitch changes his vocabulary and syntax depending on the situation, it sounds as if he’s code-switching. He could really be in either class (working- or middle-class) and do that, depending on his education, his ear, and his own preferences. Working class students who go to prestigious schools will code-switch between home and school, for example, as will middle-class kids who want to blend in with their working-class friends.

    And in today’s world, where elite college students use “between Mary and I” and don’t understand that it’s ungrammatical, historical attempts to distinguish class by language usage seem almost quaint!

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    • Thank you for the great comment and pointing to what Miss Bates had trouble with … a lot … as she wrote the post. She knew when she hit the “publish” button that, even though the post had gone through many variations, having started more stringent in its definition of class, it was not one she thought she’d ever get “right.” Mitch is a class-cypher and Miss Bates agrees with your assessment. She struggled with the idea of class and how to define (grad school is so far away … and in an era where Marxist theory still reigned), so this is, she admits, unclear.

      As a working-class kid herself, Miss Bates struggled not just to switch between the “diction” of home and school, but between working-class-in-America, peasant-class-from-Europe not-English immigrant and the English she was taught in an “Onward, Christian Soldiers” Protestant primary school. Also, living in a province, who at the time, defined English, as “Speak White,” well … language is something she’s always been very sensitive to. (She spoke the oppressor’s language and yet wasn’t a part of the class!)

      But Miss Bates has veered away from Ashley and your astute point. Miss Bates thinks that, to a certain extent, Ashley’s novel may have jumbled him, or is that just Miss Bates’ cop-put? He is middle-class, in light of his college education, detective status, and mother in “twin sets.” About half way through the novel, he confesses to Mara that he comes from working-class roots, so, he’s a diction chameleon (whereas Miss Bates is a language chameleon 😉 ). Miss Bates may have over-stated that point. Look at an educated youth’s ability to ensure a secure future, she may have the diction, but be under-employed. At least she has the diction to define her situation.

      In thinking about the novel and contending with the post and your comment at some “distance,” language and “class,” for want of a better word, is definitely a lot less open to this kind of interpretation, especially in the US where language is amalgamated in a national English. It is economic necessity that binds Mitch and Mara together; they don’t struggle and never do … even by the 10-years-later epilogue, but thinking about the state of the American economy since 2008, you can see how they easily could.

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      • I do think it’s Ashley mixing up the class signifiers, although I haven’t read the book so I can’t be sure. Your analysis is especially valuable in part because readers and reviewers frequently talk about these class issues in Ashley (implicitly or explicitly), but I haven’t seen such a careful explication of them, with examples that help someone like me make sense of the larger conversation readers are having. It’s probably because she’s given him working-class roots (to make him more manly & sympathetic?) while still endowing him with all these elite markers that let her have the cross-class romance she’s interested in portraying.

        I erased a bunch of sentences about how working-class accents, word usage, and syntax have so often been put down in novels as part of “wrong” language that has to be overcome, but your answer illustrates my points far better than I was managing to.

        This is a really stimulating post. The point isn’t to have a perfectly worked out analysis, IMO, (thank goodness or I could never blog) but to get ideas out there that can lead to a greater understanding of issues we’re all trying to figure out.

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        • Music to Miss Bates’ ears about unworked-out analyses!

          Moreover, to add to the gist of my post, thinking about “class” in Law Man in Mara’s terms is also talking about it in terms of “blood,” or “nature/birth,” or “stock.” In retrospect, it seems to MissB that the Mara of the present, “pink collar girl,” can only stand with Mitch as long as she doesn’t revert to type. In other words, contrary to how Mara has made her life one that is decent, upright, honest, and loving, she cannot disavail herself of the notion that she’ll bring Mitch down with her, that her past will catch up with her, or her genes will defeat her. Mitch’s clean, decent, “twin-set” genes will somehow be tainted by hers. In these terms, Mara’s perspective is quite appalling, yet she never judges anyone as harshly as she does herself. She uses her “Classification System” to categorise others only on the basis of their behaviour. But she can’t seem to use those terms for herself. If Mitch had confronted her with “high-falutin'” diction, she’d only have burrowed deeper into her impossible shell of inferiority. At the same time, Mitch’s diction when he’s speaking to Mara comes naturally to him. He knows he’s not “slumming it” with Mara, he has to convince her he isn’t.

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  3. I’ve been thinking about your and Sunita’s conversation about class in this book and the genre. I’m wondering if we see class represented not so much in language but signified by what makes the protagonists anxious? For example, I read a book awhile back that was supposedly about protagonists with wealth. The couple were anxious about selling a house (the book was published in the midst of the GFC/foreclosure crisis) not something that would be an urgent concern if they were truly at the wealth level portrayed in the book; it made me think I was reading about the author’s class anxieties.

    Also, the professions of Mara and Mitch are the professions of my extended family and we are working class and lower-middle class here in Australia.

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    • This is a very interesting idea, the idea of anxiety, economic anxieties as reflected in the author’s own, as opposed to the protagonists. Certainly, Miss Bates thinks Mara’s anxieties come through in her Classification System and her self-perception and how she compares herself to others. Like most children who grew up in the straitened circumstances that Mara did, or like the generation of the Great Depression, or even children with a parent who was ill, these economic anxieties also reflect feelings of abandonment, of feeling helpless and without help. Certainly the working-class, and especially the working-class immigrant, as you state, are particularly given to these anxieties, even when they’ve achieved a level of economic comfort. Miss Bates also thinks it would be interesting to think about these class, or economic anxieties, in light of romance readers’ realities.

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  4. Pingback: 2013 In Reading and Reviewing: The State of MBRR and The Year’s Favourite Romance Reads | Miss Bates Reads Romance

  5. This is a fabulous post, and comments! I’m doing some catch-up reading about authors I am considering whether to read or not, and KA is near top of the list because of the motorcycle club/SoA connection. I know you just DNF’d the motorcycle one, and I don’t know that I will end up reading any of them (I read so few contemporary romances), but I am intrigued and impressed by her willingness to address issues of class directly, and without the magical thinking involved in romances where the hero is super-rich and heroine’s money troubles vanish into thin air.

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    • Thank you! It was a lot of fun writing this one, especially because MissB. was having a relatively hassle-free week and could just focus on the text. Hmm, Miss B., like you, would not have read KA at all (ages ago, she tried to read Rock Chick and couldn’t get past the first chapter and NOT for the reasons she DNF-ed the “motorcycle one:” simply because the writing was so sloppy and it so stood out for her.) Law Man, on the other hand, wasn’t so elegantly written that she could wax poetic about it, not at all. But it was, as the post claims, concerned with these ideas; they came into the foreground and it felt like the style was in their service, deliberate. Moreover, Miss B. would say that a “phenomenon” in romance, or elsewhere, sometimes is worth reading once, or one book, just to see what the to-do is about. Certainly, Law Man is the most benign of the choices; alternately, you could just go “all out” and check out the motorcycle one, a little like going for the most exotic of the sushi on the menu, instead of the California roll …

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