Near the end of Emma Barry’s Private Politics, second title in The Easy Part series, protagonists Liam Nussbaum and Alyse Philips work together on a news story. Liam, owner and editor of a successful political blog, Poindexter, refers to working with Alyse as being “very His Girl Friday.” At that moment, it clicked for Miss Bates. Barry’s second Washington D.C.-set romance novel about the byzantine wheeling and dealing of America’s capital echoes 1930s screwball comedies (which also happen to be Miss B’s film favourites). She was disposed to like Private Politics on this basis alone, but found so much more. While the obvious connection, given the journalistic and political context, is Hawks’ His Girl Friday, Miss Bates found parallels to Capra’s It Happened One Night, with its journalist-hero and rich-girl heroine and themes of professional integrity and disclosure wrapped in a cross-class road romance. While Private Politics contains only a hint of the cross-class element (indeed, Miss Bates loved the cross-religious element to the romance; Liam, middle-class nominal Jew, and Alyse, self-avowed rich-girl, Manhattan-ite WASP), Liam and Alyse journey, though they never hit the road, by navigating the personalities, complexities, and immoral/amoral machinations that people America’s capital.
One of Barry’s many strengths, especially in this series, is writing about the importance of meaningful work to her characters, even while they negotiate a new relationship. Miss Bates is glad to read a romance writer who doesn’t write a workplace romance (not attractive to Miss B.; only Jessica Hart has done it well in Promoted: To Wife and Mother), but still writes about work in a significant way. Moreover, Miss Bates delighted in Barry’s loveable leads and scenes of what Liam and Alyse call “espionage.” She laughed with them, but was moved by their groping awkwardly towards one of the most convincing, most believable HEA-couples she’s read in romance fiction. In a word, she loved Barry’s novel. In this her third, Barry’s hand shows growth and confidence; her pacing is better, her writing coming across as effortless. Thematically, she never relinquishes the romance’s essence: the difficult choice of vulnerability over isolation, of the soft places of the heart over the comforts of pragmatism, and of love over will.
Private Politics opens as Alyse realizes she’s in Big Trouble. Special Events and Fundraising Director for Young Women Read, Inc., an organization that promotes and supports reading programs for underprivileged girls, she signs off on charitable donations. Gathering documents for the annual audit, she notes discrepancies and realizes she may, unknowingly, be an innocent accessory to the fraudulent sources of YWR’s donations. She panics: as a beautiful self-confessed fluff girl who coos over shoes and wears pencil skirts (and has the body and chutzpah to pull them off), Alyse knows that her dumb blonde persona may help her excavate the truth and its culprits because no one expects it of her. She turns to Millie, her roommate, and Millie’s fiancé, Parker, a lawyer (also, hero and heroine of the first book in the series, Special Interests). All three turn to Liam Nussbaum, the successful blogger who has the investigative know-how and resources to exonerate Alyse.
In the course of the novel, Alyse realizes that her persona does her intelligence and ethical integrity a disservice. Liam plays a role in this, but Miss Bates was glad to see a heroine’s journey be as much one of self-realization as accepting and returning love: “She might have spent the better part of a decade styling herself as a a keeper of frivolous knowledge, but did that mean she’d missed her chance to develop any more tools for dealing with the world? Was sweet and shallow party girl her only way of being in the world?” If not for this potential professional endgame, Alyse might never have taken in hand how smart and capable she is. While the novel’s set-up is disaster-in-the-making, it’s also opportunity for growth … and for throwing these two unlikely lovers together, as Liam uses contacts and investigative savvy to extricate Alyse from her predicament. When Alyse’s snooping yields results, danger stalks her and she moves to Liam’s place to stay out of the cross-hairs. And that’s where the fun really begins!
What motivates Liam to go out of his way to help Alyse, other than that he’s a nice guy? He’s been head-over-heels in love with her for months. As Parker’s best friend and Millie’s roommate, they’ve been thrown together; now, they are close and personal without Parker and Millie’s mediating influence. For Liam, it’s a dream come true; for Alyse, it’s confusing and exciting. Parker and Millie make interesting appearances. They’re not present merely to point to their halcyon couple-hood, though that is looking pretty good, but to aid and abet Liam and Alyse in uncovering the sleazy money matters at YWR. Miss Bates loved the telescoping of these two characters to whom we’d become so attached to in the first book: happy in their togetherness, but playing an important role in this story. Miss Bates’ greatest love is reserved for the diffident, self-deprecating hero, Liam Nussbaum; his humour and adoration for Alyse, his honesty, emotional and intellectual, is so endearing. But he’s no pushover: he’s open about the way he feels and thinks. In a lovely reversal of the mating dance, he makes Alyse await consummation because he wants to protect his heart and ensure that they share more than physical satisfaction. He holds out and still manages to be sexy and attractive and desirable and deserving.
One of the most wonderful scenes is the moment in which Alyse first becomes aware of Liam’s desirability; it happens in the context of work, a most original and appealing scene. Puzzled over the unethical shenanigans at YWR, Inc., Alyse asks Liam to meet at a café. She finds him working, writing, madly tapping away at his computer: “He’d always seemed nice, but she’d never realized he could also be intense.” This combination of intense, smart, protective, and comforting make Liam a loveable hero: ” … he was cute and calm … He just looked like he gave really good hugs.” Wow. What an awesome hero: no posturing, no brooding, no angst, no he-man ordering around … respect, affection, friendship, and a warm hard hug. Sigh Liam: the one you should never let get away. How could you when he says stuff like, “I’m the hugs-on-demand guy. Whenever you need them. Whatever you need, Alyse, I’m here. For you, anything.” Or, does it get more romantic than ” ‘ … You asked the other day why I was interested in you. You are lovely. You have to know that. I was attracted to you right away. But I stayed interested because you are fierce. And smart. And you don’t, not for a single second, take crap.’ “? And yet, Alyse’s cold family life conditioned her not to expect what Liam offers and feelings of failing at love and friendship see her nearly abandon the best thing that ever came her way. Her smarts and soft heart bring her back. The hows and wherefores are the one of the many pleasures of reading Private Politics.
In Private Politics, cute and sexy leads are coupled with a screwball comedy plot. But there’s a depth here too: serious people thinking and talking about serious things. Liam and Alyse converse, really really converse about the world, politics, ethics, and their work. Miss Bates loved that Liam and Alyse have interesting and serious conversations about the world, about how to make it better. They care. They’re knowledgeable, aware, and concerned. Yes, they flirt and make love; they work hard and share a caper of an adventure as they chase down the baddies. Miss Bates loved that Barry included an element rare in romance: Liam and Alyse are citizens of a particular place and time, which might make them sound like that boring Civics class everyone takes in middle school, but that’s not it at all. They’re well-off, upper middle-class people, but they’re perceptive and committed to making the world a better and more interesting place. This is something that Barry wrote into Special Interests‘ Millie and Parker too. It worked well there and it works well here. When their HEA comes about, the reader knows that Liam and Alyse, like Millie and Parker, will not live in a couple-enclave, a bubble of exclusive togetherness so beloved of contemporary, especially small-town-set, contemporary romance. They will engage with, and be in and of, the world.
Mix a cocktail, or make an aromatic cup of tea, watch It Happened One Night, or His Girl Friday: revel in the screwball chases and near-escapes and note the tenderness and goodness at the core of the characters. Then, read Barry’s series, starting with Special Interests and followed by Private Politics, and know that you are reading one of the most delightful, original contemporary romance series the genre offers. In Private Politics, Miss Bates found that “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Emma Barry’s Private Politics is published by Carina Press and has been available in e-format since September 8th.
Miss Bates is grateful to Ms Barry and Carina for an e-ARC in order for Miss Bates to consider the novel for review.
Barry’s combination of humour and love in a world of conflicting political interests in a setting that’s never been replicated in romance, as far as Miss Bates knows, marks its place in the genre. Have you read of any other romances, historical or contemporary, that have centred the romance in the public sphere?