Emma Barry’s Brave In Heart was one of Miss Bates’ favourite 2013 reads. She was happy to see that some were disappointed that Barry wasn’t a Rita mention this year, as she deserved to be. Brave In Heart captured Miss Bates’ love and interest from its opening sentence: ” ‘I wish to release you from our engagement.’ ” Dramatic, succinct, utterly hook-able. Special Interests, set amidst the divisive, acrimonious politics of present-day Washington DC, took longer to win her loyalty, but win it it did. Witness Special Interests‘ opening line: ” ‘Oh good, it’s not too crowded.’ ” Less élan, wouldn’t you say, dear reader? The historical context of Brave In Heart was a winning canvas to hero and heroine, Theo and Margaret: the American Civil War, life and death, men leaving, women left behind, a nation rent. The protagonists, Theo and Margaret, were seasoned, a couple taking a second-chance at love and commitment, working out old hurts and antagonisms, separation, loss, anxiety, and … drumroll, please … correspondence. Beautiful, moving letters, the like of which we listened to on Ken Burns’ The Civil War, enthralled. How can text messages, cell calls, memos, and the cynical shenanigans of contemporary American politics compare? Special Interests had the greater challenge: to build a love story out of the mundane and build it Ms Barry did: with humour and pathos.
Special Interests‘ opening scene echoes Crusie’s Bet Me. A crowded Washington DC bar, a curvaceous, “squeezable” (as the hero later notes) young woman, somewhat deprimé, and an encounter with a gorgeous, amoral ladies’ man. Millie Frank, idealistic union organizer, survivor of a recent pharmacy robbery-hostage-taking, has been dragged there by friends Alyse and Margot. Her 15-minutes-of-fame gives her drink-buying clout at the bar and our hero, Parker Beckett, deal-maker for the senate majority leader, bamboozles her into ordering his. Introductions made, Millie knows what she’s looking at: “The ghosts of the hearts he’d broken were almost visible stretching toward the door.” She resists her attraction, replaces it with well-honed left-wing contempt for a compromiser: “She hoped he could feel her disdain rather than her attraction.” Thus, a courtship dance begins because attraction wins out over condescension; Millie makes a pass … and Parker, all perfect-teeth smile and hard 6’2″ frame of tall, dark, and handsome, like a contemporary Gregory Peck, rebuffs her. He wants her all right, but there’s something to him, some vulnerability, something that screams I’m-no-good-babe and you’re-better-off-without-me. The next day, they meet over the negotiating table; on the table, the federal budget. As Parker and Millie negotiate their respective causes’ interests, they also negotiate attraction, commitment, and love.
One of Special Interests‘ strengths is a spoiler-proof plot. In Miss Bates’ estimation, that is an accomplishment and a rarity in romance. In other words, Barry doesn’t resort to coincidence (okay, once near the end she does, but it’s forgivable because it’s adorable) or external conflict or deus ex machina to move her story along. She builds conflict on the basis of battling ideologies and cements character in family and life experience. What drives Millie and Parker apart is also what brings them together: who they are and what they believe. Her strength also lies in contextualizing her characters. Brave In Heart‘s Theo and Margaret had that painful civil war looming over their relationship; its drama and potential for hurt and loss were reflected in their relationship. Washington’s realpolitik and the ludicrousness of one of the world’s greatest, most powerful country’s inability to negotiate a budget that keeps its government operating are the backdrop to Millie and Parker’s relationship; their courtship’s wheeling-and-dealings reflect and undermine it, complete it and must stand outside of it, resolve to the domestic sphere for happiness and political for hope. In the end, the HEA belongs to both couple and country. In Barry’s romance novel, opposites detract, attract, repel, and like lodestones, finally, mysteriously, attach and hold. Thus the enigmatic republic to Miss Bates’ south and thus with Millie and Parker: “She seemed to make him think about things, like, you know, his party’s constituents. He forced her to think about political exigencies, the practical and real side of the idealistic world in which she existed.” Opposites attract and reconcile, take and give, change by recognizing the merit in each others’ points of view. There is happiness for Millie and Parker and hope for the country.
What of Millie and Parker, our heroine and hero? They are, without a doubt, likeable, sympathetic, and out-and-out messes. Unlike Brave In Heart‘s Theo and Margaret, they feel like young messes. Barry is good at writing characters on the cusp of personal change with the backdrop their place in a particular moment, or shift in American history or its ethos and compel them to negotiate all of it, the personal and public spheres. While Theo and Margaret feel as if this is their last chance at love, Parker and Millie feel as if this is their time to come to terms with their quixotic, youthful idealism. Parker’s years in Washington have jaded him; Millie’s have made her lose confidence and hope. She confesses to us, “Millie organized the things, attended the things, and gossiped about the things. She hated the things.” They were earnest, hard-working, and wide-eyed and believed they could change their country for the better when they arrived and now, they just don’t know. As Parker tells us, “His apathy was strategic, not general.” Malaise and disillusion have taken enthusiasm and idealism’s places.
One of the sheer delights of Special Interests is the dialogue. The dialogue is the negotiation. It’s witty, fun, and clever. Miss Bates can’t help but do some quoting. When Parker stays overnight at Millie’s for the first time, he reassures her it’s to make sure she’s alright; he says, ” ‘We’ve got world enough and time for the rest later.’ ” Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. (And only one of Miss B’s favourite poems!) Millie’s riposte is, ” ‘I’m not sure, Andrew Marvell.’ That sinful smile spread across his face and he responded, ‘Coy mistress, what do you have to lose?’ ” Thus, in the last third of the novel, begins something of which there is a dearth in romance, a wonderful courtship/negotiation towards love. For Millie considers, at that moment, that the world of realpolitik demands that she reject Parker, Lothario and schmoozer extraordinaire, but the realm of the heart has another agenda, “She considered his question. In the lose column she put her heart, sanity, and dignity. But on the other side of the page were affection, kindness and maybe love. Where were the scales of justice when a girl needed them?” Ah, Ms Millie, Eros’ arrows know nothing of balance, or as Millie admits, “She was a puddle of hair-twirling, adolescent nonsense where he was concerned.” Delightful dialogue, endearing characterization. And, by the way, the love scenes are sexily understated, but perfect for Parker and his Millie.
Did Miss Bates find any fault with Barry’s Special Interests? Not a clearly articulated one, but a vague sense that this is a romance novel that is better in its parts than as a whole. Scenes of wonderful humour: when Parker convinces Millie to date him by offering her a list of references and calling them; the awkward first date, a conversation that opens with, ” ‘Um, so how do you feel about hummus?’ ” Brilliant and hilarious. Scenes where the world is “too much with us”: when Millie has to take advantage of Parker’s insider knowledge. Scenes of raw honesty: when the mornings-and-afternoons-after bring on painful confessions and revelations. Taken altogether however, the novel is episodic, much like our post-modern lives where our greatest challenge is carving out a private life, relationships wrested from professional ones that dominate and overwhelm. Nevertheless, it is a hopeful vision, a vision of possibility. Millie and Parker negotiate a balance between the happiness of the domestic sphere and more muted roles to play in the public one. Parker and Millie veer to the sidelines, the fringes, become Dorotheas instead of movers-and-shakers. And we, and they, are all right with that.
In Barry’s Special Interests, among movers-and-shakers and ideologues of Washington’s young and driven, amidst cocktail parties and bars and schmoozy events and dishes of rubbery chicken, Miss Bates discerned that, ultimately, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma, bruised and buffeted though hearts may be by the world’s if not cruelty, then its Darwinian pragmatism. In the end, neither Aphrodite, nor Athena, triumph, but Hestia does.
Emma Barry’s Special Interests is published by Carina Press and available in e-format from the usual vendors as of today, April 7th.
Miss Bates is grateful to the author and Carina Press for the e-ARC they provided in exchange for this honest review.
Miss Bates loved the backdrop of Washington DC’s realpolitik in this romance novel, but it is unusual to the genre. Have you read any romances with a strong political context?