After finishing Jo Beverley’s sublime Emily and the Dark Angel, Miss Bates was in a reading funk. Much like a fussy baby, “grizzling” (as Hart describes adorable Freya in Juggling Briefcase and Baby) from book to book, unable to settle. Miss Bates read the opening pages to at least 15 e-ARCs; none of them took: the writing was stilted, info-dumps galore, and even romance writers she usually loves were giving her the meh-blues. She tried out a few non-roms; that experiment fell flat as well, too many writers too conscious of the prose and ignorant of the pacing, plot, and characterization. She stood in her spinster’s lair, foot a-tapping, index finger beating a dissatisfied refrain on her chin: nothing stood out from the groaning paper TBR shelves. “What to read? What to read?” … always turn to a title from a favourite author! Hence, Jessica Hart’s Juggling Briefcase and Baby, a one-click buy from years ago when Miss Bates read Wendy’s review. Dear readers, Wendy was right: this is a great great rom. There be reasons. There be one reason above all that makes for great rom. The genre runs with a pretty straight forward narrative: encounter, new or reunited; development with obstacles; HEA. That’s all there is to it; characterization, pretty standard, flawed but basically likeable, on occasion, admirable. What distinguishes the romance genre from others is the emotional wisdom, the deep deep astuteness about the bond of falling in love and making the scary leap to commitment. Hart, alas no longer practicing the romance art, is/was one of its most sensitive practitioners.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the puerilely-titled Juggling Briefcase and Baby, also in the equally inanely-titled, and one of Miss Bates’s favourite romances, Promoted: to Wife and Mother. Hart’s tropicity in Juggling Briefcase and Baby is standard fare: reunited-lovers and secretary and boss, partly closed-cabin rom, and fake engagement. All familiarly mundane until one reads them in the hands of a master of emotional wisdom.
Alexander “Lex” Gibson, 38, chief executive of supermarket-chain Gibson and Grieve, “a man renowned for his cool detachment,” waits nervously and impatiently on board his private jet. On his way to close an important deal with Willie Grant of Grant’s Supersavers, Lex knows this will give his company the desired foothold in the Scottish market, expanding Gibson and Grieve beyond England and Wales. Lex is impatient because he hates to be late, doesn’t like the feeling of the loss of control flying gives him, and even less so the trepidation he feels knowing the girl he loved 12 years ago is about to accompany him as his assistant.
Meanwhile, said girl, 30-year-old Romy Morrison is running frantically through her apartment to make this last-minute request from her colleague a reality by packing for herself and 13-month-old daughter, Freya. We immediately have a sense of these two characters: what will attract and repel them from each other. First, they have a history that goes back to separation and rejection. At 18, Romy wasn’t ready for marriage; at 26, Lex was. She expressed doubts; he left without saying good-bye. Since, he’s lived dedicated to an ordered, staid life, seeking the success of his family’s company. Romy, on the other hand, has lived as a free spirit, travelling, working where the wind took her, living from hand to mouth … until a chance fun encounter left her pregnant. She returned home to her mother and having her baby. Now, she has to settle in England and be a responsible adult, keep a steady, good job and care for Freya. To round off the plot: Lex, Romy, and Freya travel to Willie Grant’s remote castle, are snowed in, pretend to be a couple (it’s complicated), grow closer, then repel each other, have to share a London apartment to maintain the charade for the deal, realize they’re in love, decide they’re still plagued by their differences … and you can fill in the rest, dear reader, if you read romances with any frequency.
What makes this romance stand above others? Exactly what makes any romance do so: its ability to emotionally absorb the reader with the veracity of the characters’ feelings. If your heart isn’t tugging, if you’re not sometimes chuckling, sometimes tearing, if the world around you isn’t fading into the background because you’re invested in the characters’ emotional lives, it ain’t romance and it certainly ain’t great romance. The way a master romance-writer evokes this state in the reader is with references that combine emotional and physical states, witness Lex’s response to seeing Romy after twelve years:
… the steel band that had been locked around his chest for the past twelve years had been steadily tightening ever since he had heard that Romy was back in the country.
And, witness Romy’s response to Lex at that same moment:
… the rumble and scream of the planes taking off and landing, the crackle of the radio as the pilot checked in with the control tower, were all strangely muted and there was only the warm weight of Freya in her arms and the man whose pale grey eyes set her heart thudding painfully in her throat.
The effect of the still-unresolved characters’ emotions is concentrated on the physical sensation of their hearts. If the romance is working for the reader, the same emotional effect is echoed in her. But a clever writer knows that variety is what makes a good novel and an attraction/repulsion pattern keeps the characters incrementally moving towards each other (to the eventual HEA) and the reader engaged, turning those pages.
Hart is a master at the repulsion too, her humour residing in Freya’s comic effect. After establishing the emotional reverberations of Lex and Romy’s past, and ratcheting the narrative intensity UP for the reader, Hart lets us DOWN with a chuckle when Lex reacts to Freya’s presence:
His brows snapped together. ‘What,’ he demanded, ‘is that baby doing here?’
‘This is Freya.’ Romy put up her chin at his tone.
Miss Bates loved the snapping brows and lifted chin, famous in rom for indicating the heroine’s defiance of the hero. But Lex’s introspection reminds the reader that he knows “his heart had crumpled at the sight of her.” Future emotional torment is what this moment holds. The reader knows the heart will have its day and hero and heroine will have to go before it as supplicants.
(Miss Bates will take a moment to say that Lex and Freya’s encounters, with nappies, mashed potatoes, squashed shortbread, and saliva-covered teddy bears are some of the funniest scenes Miss Bates has read in any rom. You should read Juggling Briefcase and Baby for those, if nothing else.)
Jessica Hart’s Juggling Briefcase and Baby is emotionally wise and therefore emotionally engaging. Don’t let the asinine title fool you, Lex and Romy are living, breathing figures you will care about. They have pasts that prove obstacles to their love. They have hearts they need to learn to open. They have the ability for fidelity, commitment, and open-hearted affection and care that will prove their HEA is believable. With her reading comrade, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says that Juggling Briefcase and Baby proves “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Jessica Hart’s Juggling Briefcase and Baby is published by Harlequin Romance. You may look for it at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates purchased it with her spinster savings.