Emma Barry writes Miss Bates’ favourite kind of romance novel: rich in context, with characters immersed in a definitive place and time, uniquely themselves, but also emerging out of that place and time. Barry sets her contemporary romances in the arena of contemporary American politics. It was the stew that bubbled forth the first in the Easy Part trilogy, Special Interests, and second, Private Politics. Barry’s third “politically-set” romance, Party Lines, is her most “politically dense” novel yet, but it also offers a gloriously interesting romance. It contains a delicious irony in premise and title. Party politics/lines, especially modern party politics, are constantly in the public eye in this social-media age. How to carve space for intimacy, friendship, love, for “private spaces” in the midst of an election campaign as a key organizing player? That is the story of Democratic campaign manager, Michael Picetti, and Republican assistant to the deputy campaign manager, Lydia Reales. What if the furthering of one’s career hinges on this performance? What if the object of one’s love and desire is on the opposing side? Ideology, conviction, ambition, loyalty come into play and clash with desire, friendship, love, fulfillment, when political affiliations draw the line on what lines can’t be crossed for love.
Barry’s novel is a unique opposites-attract, rivals-to-lovers, road romance. It’s unlike any road romance Miss B. ever read, however. The familiar trope, wherein hero and heroine embark on a voyage for a specific purpose, or mission, where they work together against the elements, or the bad guys and, in the process, fall in love, isn’t Barry’s novel. It’s set in the fraught, stress-imbued, anonymous-hotels-and-plastic-chicken-dinners, identical airport waiting-rooms, relentlessly-paced campaign trail leading to nomination in the Democratic and Republican parties, debates, presidential campaigns, and November’s deciding culmination. A Republican heroine and Democratic hero create ideological conflict and sexual tension over coffee, delicious banter over Applebee’s dinners, and put the racy in “conflict of interest.” A secret affair between political rivals in anonymous hotel rooms set in a variety of American states. As the nomination and presidential campaign trails serve as Barry’s organizing narrative principle, they allow her to develop the romance along lines of furtive meetings, witty text messaging, late-night phones calls, and passion-filled encounters in ersatz hotel rooms.
As far as meet-cutes are concerned, Lydia and Michael’s is pretty adorable. They meet on board an Iowa-bound plane. He’s too good-looking for Lydia and she thinks he knows it; she dismisses him. But the girl with the enormous bag, reading three different financial magazines, and sporting dark horn-rimmed glasses: he’s interested. Miss Bates loved Michael’s characterisation of Lydia: “Lydia crossed her legs and looked at him over the top of her glasses. It gave her the air of a naughty librarian on her day off” and “A little aloof, a little naïve, but smart.” This succinct internal remark sets the tone of their interactions; moreover, it crystallizes their characters. Michael has seen it all; politics aren’t about convictions anymore. They’re about winning and he’s very good at getting his guy to win. He’s a cynic, but in conversation with Lydia, he upholds his party’s convictions. He still believes in the ideas, but not in the party’s ability to embody, or enact them. Lydia is a Republican believer, but too smart not to know, for example, that she’s the Latina face of her party. They trot her out as such and she plays along because she wants the opportunity to make a difference. She’s smart and knows when to fold’em and when to hold’em.
Miss Bates thought it so clever and fun how Barry developed this aspect of their characters. In knowing, and eventually loving Lydia, Michael whittles away at his cynicism. In knowing Michael, in coming to care for him, and in learning from his greater experience, Lydia is able to catch the holes in her party, even while upholding her loyalty and finding ways to give voice to her convictions. She becomes a mover and a shaker and Michael finds a way to recover his idealistic mojo. What the HEA shows us is that they do this better together than apart. Because. This is still a WONDERFUL ROMANCE. In keeping with the tone of the novel, they meet, banter, and part “vague” about ever seeing each other again for the first half of the novel. They’re both at the heart of their respective candidates’ campaigns to snag party nominations and then the presidency. Just as they first meet in an airport headed to the same destination, they end up in the same hotels, coffee shops, and chain restaurants.
Miss Bates loved the development of Lydia and Michael’s romance: all-lust and one-night-stands. Underpinning that, Lydia and Michael clear assumptions about the other, especially Michael who finds his match in Lydia. He’s a “Democrat,” so he’s got all the PC moves a left-of-centre gal could want. Except this gal is right of centre. He must learn that PC doesn’t mean you are handed a “get out of jail card” for free when it comes to making assumptions about party affiliations. Lydia is, as she says herself, ” … too young, too female, too unmarried, too liberal, and too brown” to be a Republican. And yet, her reasoning is sound; her vision, thoughtful and compassionate. But it isn’t Capital-D democratic. Lydia doesn’t let Michael get away with anything and Miss Bates loved every minute of it; the conversation is witty and fun, but it’s also substantial and compelling. Michael and Lydia start from a place of assumptions (and so refreshing that they don’t start from a place of misunderstanding, or a Big Secret. There’s a hint that the plot might hinge on that, but Barry skirts it with – bless me, can it be? – a little honest conversation between the main characters):
“Yes, you just thought I was what?” He didn’t say anything, so she supplied, “A Latina. Knowing that, you made an assumption about my party affiliation. At the heart of that calculation is everything wrong with today’s Democrat Party.”
“There’s nothing wrong with today’s Democratic Party,” he spat out. “Call me on November fifth, babe, and we’ll talk it over.”
Oh, snap. She’s right; he’s not exactly wrong, but she comes out on top. Lydia and Michael share a lot of bedroom-time (and this is a quirkily sizzling romance), but Barry does something clever here too. The hotter and more intense their love-making is, the less intimate they are. They don’t clasp hands, cuddle, or hold each other. They don’t fall asleep together and they don’t wake up in the same bed. This raises the emotional tension and downplays the sexual one. Which is a very very adroit romance narrative move for a relative newcomer to contemporary romance. Miss Bates liked it a lot. Because, instead of holding your reader-breath for the first love scene, you hold it waiting for Lydia, or Michael to break. To let love in. And then watch how they wiggle out of the quandary of their secretive, temporary, no-attachments-or-hearts-involved affair.
One of Miss Bates’ favourite moments in romance is the epiphany of recognition: the moment when the heroine, or hero, apprehends what the other has come to mean. Too often, this seminal moment is glossed over with, “She realized she loved him.” Bam. Done. Barry, on the other hand, does this really well, capturing the complexity of two complex people’s understanding of what they love about another person. Lydia on Michael:
When he smiled fully, his eyes were just so crinkly. From a purely aesthetic point of view, it probably wasn’t a great look for him. It made him too boyish. Too optimistic. Too happy. Too unlike how he’d been with her. It was the smile of an earlier, less jaded version of himself. But it was almost hard to look at it because while she was happy to be in bed with this guy, this cynical, liberal, closed-off guy, she had a feeling that earlier, softer, more open guy would have been a very real danger to her heart.
Michael on Lydia:
… the ground fell away beneath him. He wanted her. Not solely in a carnal sense – though that too – but he wanted her in his life. He wanted a relationship with her. He didn’t want another meaningless campaign fling. He wanted to know what he was to her and he wanted her to trust him with the things she didn’t show anyone else.
Miss Bates loved that Michael and Lydia realize what they love about the other lies in vulnerability: “the softer, more open guy,” and a desire to know and protect “the things she didn’t show anyone else.” Miss Bates loved their depth and soft cores and how Barry carved a space for them to share that was modern, believable, and didn’t compromise what they wanted to accomplish in the world. (Besides, there’s an ironic twist to the baby-filled epilogue that gave Miss B. a good chuckle.)
Party Lines is Barry’s most complex, most confident, most engaging work to date. In Party Lines, Miss Bates found evidence of “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Emma Barry’s Party Lines, published by Carina Press, is available as of January 12th as an e-book at your preferred vendor.
Miss Bates received an e-ARC from the author.