I admit it: I’m having a blast settling into my new neighborhood and getting to know the writers here. My part of eastern Iowa is full of literary talent, and they’re not just graduates unmoored from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop who are afraid to wander too far abroad. These are writers raised here, or who moved here, or who have lived here a long time, and have much to teach me not just about the literary scene but about my craft. I’m learning a great deal, but more than that, I’m enjoying the companionship and the creative stimulation.
This is how I came across romance author Teresa LaBella and her New Love trilogy, which begins with Reservations. As we know, the fields of femmeliterate are not hostile to the romance, but questions have been raised about the extent to which this genre provides liberation from the stereotypes of gender performance, expected sexual roles, and conventionally scripted fantasies with which our mainstream culture seems to be saturated. LaBella’s book, I am happy to say, offers romance with a feminist twist.
The heroine, Alison Clarke, is an established career woman and entrepreneur who likes her job and is neither exhaustively driven by it nor left empty and longing for a man to complete her, which is how the career woman is usually introduced in our romantic comedies, romance novels, and recent films like Jurassic World. Ali is already satisfied with her life when the novel opens, happily single and content with her ambitions and her accomplishments. She has a strong circle of friends, a home she adores, and work that fulfills her. It’s a refreshing change from the usual.
Admittedly, this is a difficult opening to pull off for a novel, since there’s no internal motive or need to will drive the heroine into the hero’s field of vision. In fact, she has to have her arm twisted by her charming gay sidekick, tenant, and neighbor, David, to even go to the charity gala where four-star chefs are vying to impress the well-heeled guests. When tall, incredibly handsome Chef Darien hands her a place of bruschetta, Ali remarks on his ingredients. It is her combination of knowledge and impeccable taste (he will later be struck by her wine pairing with his signature heirloom squash soup), along with her well-maintained figure and elegant, classic style, that catch the hero’s eye and his interest.
We’re not given a lot of detail about Chef Darien’s appearance, so I felt free to build my own vision. He looks like this:
The second feminist twist is the age difference between the leads. Ali is twenty years older than Darien. She is not a cougar, with the implications that a mature woman (less desirable because less prepubescently smooth and firm) is desperate and preying upon whatever male flesh happens across her path. Nor does she consign herself (because supposedly no longer able to compete for male attention) to celibacy for the remainder of her life. There’s no indication that Ali either feels the lack of a male companion or any agony about her age; she does, after all, have the witty, fun, stylishly hip David around whenever she wants him, and sometimes when she doesn’t. Again, while this diminishes the opportunity for tension and conflict in the novel, it does make for a character I can like and even celebrate.
This is how I pictured Ali, because in my mind, Jennifer Coolidge conveys just the right amount of sultry, sassy, stylish, and smart that I can imagine a man 20 years younger leaping at the chance to be with her, becoming wildly besotted with her and her beautiful Brooklyn apartment, and (spoiler alert!) vowing he wants to marry and spend the rest of his life with her on whatever terms she will have him, even if it means getting married in the NY Botanical Gardens in a landscape drawn from Monet.
Unlike the traditional romance narrative, where the man stalks and tempestuously woos a half-willing heroine through seduction and challenge, Ali has and maintains the upper hand throughout the relationship. What this does for the narrative is remove much of the conflict and tension that make a story crackle. But what this also is send the welcome message to readers that there’s nothing wrong with an older woman deciding she wants to make a reservation for one and check out a younger, handsome man at his workplace. When Darien comes to her table like a fly to honey, she invites him on a date. She takes him out to dinner and she drives. Then she invites him back to her apartment for a late night cocktail, hands him the leash to walk her dog, and meets him upon his return wearing a shimmering negligee that means he will be going nowhere that night. The result is, Darien never leaves. There’s little doubt this script will unfold exactly as planned and Ali will get exactly what she wants, but Darien wants it too, and their coming together is the conjugation of two consenting adults who admire and are genuinely interested in one another. As a fantasy script, I’m all for it.
The most fantastic element of the novel, perhaps, is that the age difference doesn’t seem to matter a bit to either of them. In real life, one imagines that it would. Twenty years is a generation gap in terms of cultural references and reproductive urges. But this is resolved rather easily in the book. It turns out Ali and Darien like the same movies. It turns out he’s more than happy to give up his bachelor pad and his shabby furniture and move into her luxe Brooklyn penthouse with her linens, her jetted tub, her fireplace, and her wine fridge. When his family displays trepidation that he has fallen in love with a woman much his senior, Darien argues them into submission. David gracefully steps out of the picture by having the good sense to fall for a cute boy-toy of his own. And Ali’s cousin and closest friend Patrice, who knows her better than anyone, doesn’t seem to feel a hint of apprehension about this pairing, maybe because Darien bears such a striking resemblance to Bradley Cooper.
In short, there are no real obstacles to this love affair. Ali’s hesitation about getting married are easily resolved (spoiler alert the second!) with a quick chat and a hug in the Impressionist room at the Met. Darien’s hesitations are nil; he knows he’s a lucky dog. The only real narrative tension revolves around whether Ali actually wants to get married in the lusciously beautiful Monet Garden or just run away to City Hall. While this doesn’t make for a riveting, page-turning type of read, it does offer a sweet, soft-lit fantasy that can perfectly satisfy a reader longing for less suffering and more romance. This reader recommends you pour a glass of wine (or, if you wish, grab the whole bottle), turn on the fireplace, pull the warm quilt over your feet, and drop into the liberating softness of this book. It will give your feminist sensibilities a satisfying boost.
(And then, when you’re done, you can move on to the second book in the trilogy, and see what further adventures are in store for these two.)