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.
When 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.