At the moment I’m reading The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie, but I stopped, because I was so embarrassed at a main character’s actions. Do you know this phenomenon? You read a novel about a character you generally like and admire, and at some point the character acts in a way that makes you feel deeply embarrassed on his or her behalf. When this happens, I am usually pulled out of my reading, and often the book languishes for days, even weeks or months on my bedside table before I pick it up again, if ever. So feeling embarrassed about otherwise likable characters can be a serious hindrance to my enjoying a book.
This past week, I read The Mane Squeeze by Shelly Laurenston. About halfway through the book I realised the heroine’s best friend was black and though she had previously struck me as slightly annoying, I finished the book eagerly anticipating a sequel with a romance story for her.
Why was I all of a sudden so interested in this character? The long and short answer: it’s because she was black. A slightly annoying white best friend would have garnered no more than cursory interest for me, but once I learned that Blayne – in the most superficial of ways – “resembled” me, I was invested in her story.
I have existed for most of my literate life on a steady diet of romance novels and ninety-nine percent of the characters in these novels are Caucasian – and American. I expect that for the rest of my literate life, my diet will remain pretty much unchanged. African-American romance novels are hard to come by in my neck of the woods and because I don’t read with race in the forefront of my mind, it is very easy to accept the status quo. That said, my reaction to Blayne (with whom I had absolutely nothing else in common apart from skin colour) highlighted for me a subtle but present undercurrent of need for recognition in my romance.
”It’s the little things you do together … that make perfect relationships/
The hobbies you pursue together, savings you accrue together, looks you misconstrue together/
That make marriage a joy.”
The above lines from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company popped into my head as I was reading Patti O’Shea’s Edge of Dawn. I found this book spectacularifically generic in almost every way, except in its depiction of the couple’s pastimes. Unlike many romances in which couples seem to share everything but parents, Ms. O’Shea’s characters had mutually exclusive – exclusive, mind you – hobbies. He tinkers with cars. She loves art. Both hobbies bore the hell out of the other, and the other knows it. But does it affect their relationship? Not a whit.