On Aesthetes and Alphas: Julie James's A Lot Like Love

Sunday, January 8, 2012

"Men marry because they are tired, women because they are curious. Both are disappointed."
(Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance)

Nick McCall has just come out of a string of harsh, punishing undercover assignments.  He takes a deep breath, stretches into his real persona, and thinks with relief about heading back to Brooklyn for his mother’s birthday party.  He just has one more job to do before then: walking a rookie FBI colleague through the infiltration of a ritzy Chicago wine tasting, thrown by a man whose restaurant empire looks to be financed by the mob.  Their in to this exclusive shindig is wealthy Jordan Rhodes, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Chicago and owner of a boutique wine store that caters to the tasting’s criminal host.  But on the night of the tasting, the rookie agent is struck by explosive stomach flu (what a beautiful start to any romance!), and Nick, who feels ill-equipped to make claims to wine-knowledge and doesn’t even own a Ralph Lauren suit), has to step in as Jordan’s “date” to infiltrate the party and bug its host’s office.  I think you can see where we go from here.

Slow starting and hot burning, this, like all of James’s novels, was not bad at all, and sometimes quite good.  I stifled a groan when I figured out that this novel was going to be about wine geekery: Père Sycorax was a wine importer, so I spent my childhood exploring a long series of mouldering cellars, sunny vineyards, and chilly liquor stores (my mother even had a game to keep me amused in wine stores, so often were we there: Find the Animals on the Wine Labels).  The result is that I know as much about wine (and more about wine people) as any teetotaler should.  When I was about four, I used to ask for my milk in a wine glass, slowly swirl it round, hold it to one nostril before carefully sipping, trilling it over my tongue and declaring “rich… with a faint bouquet of, let’s see, cow.” Let’s just say that I didn’t find Sideways to be a hilarious comedy so much as a rather underwhelming bit of realism.  But I feel like James does a pretty good job with the wine trade here, presenting it in detail and with interest.  One or two of the names she evokes in the field are even people I’ve met.

Best of all, we get a contemporary romance that is genuinely invested in the heroine’s career, not as an obstacle to happiness, but as something that is an inalienable part of her character, a component part, an essential element in her happiness.  Over and over we see her being really good at what she does, earning a reputation that is founded on her father’s fame and riches, but doesn’t rely on them.  And in tandem with the hero (more of a bourbon guy) we come to admire her for this skill, this passion, this confidence.  In fact, it is the hero here who must contemplate whether his career (at which he also excels) is compatible with his happiness, either familial or romantic.  He is happy with the resolution to this problem, but I’m not sure I am: is love always a taming for these ferocious alpha types?  Isn’t their skill (and independence) at what they do just as much a part of why we love them as the heroine’s? 

Sidebar: Career sacrifice - is it an key element in contemporary romance, and must it be? Understandably the first thing that a lot of people contemplate after falling in love today is how to align their contexts [location, domicile, career] - though D and I certainly didn’t.  But I want more love stories in which neither party has to sacrifice what they enjoy, what they are good at, the service they are dedicated to.  These are conflicts of duty and selfhood that are fascinating, and shouldn’t be easy to resolve.  This is one of the things I love about the resolution to Kristin Cashore’s impeccable Graceling, but I’ll say no more about it in case you haven’t yet read that novel.  And if you haven’t, stop reading this blog immediately and go get it.

Returning to A Lot Like Love, I have to address a gender issue: I am so freaking tired of these alpha heroes who police their masculinity so ferociously: “If he were an introspective person, one of those in-touch-with-hidden-emotions types - a.k.a. a woman, he would probably take note of the fact that it was much harder to blow off her dislike of him than it had been merely six days ago” (112).  Moments like these are hard to pick apart, because they contain the seeds of their own endorsement and undoing: he is clearly a chauvinist, but he is also clearly experiencing the emotions he so derides.  We smile knowingly at the irony, but is this recognition the same as a critique of the chauvinism?  Before anything else, there's a plausibility issue: Nick is constantly refusing to do things because “where I come from, men don’t do that,” and it's difficult to reconcile this sort of self-conscious rigidity of behavior with the fact that his great talent in life is disappearing into other identities for undercover ops.  

Nick, my darling dear, come over here
and let me tell you about
a thing called aestheticism.
Jordan seems exasperated by this too (“Nick McCall had a few too many rules - it was high time he started bending them” 188), continually prodding him into fraught experiences like wine tastings and viewings of Dancing with the Stars (“‘It’s… even worse than I’d imagined,’ he whispered, ‘Is there a reason none of these men have buttons on their shirts?’ Horrified, he took in the spray tans.  The sequins and feathers.  The caked-on make-up and the plunging necklines.  And those were the guys” 228). Even so, she is at most ambivalent about what amounts to a framing of masculinity along very narrow, implicitly homophobic lines that are inextricably imbricated with class anxiety. Even as she undermines his sexist self-conception, it’s what she really likes about him, what differentiates him from the loafer-wearers she normally dates (yes, that’s how she thinks about them, as wearers of loafers): “Maybe she needed to find more of a guy’s guy,” she thinks, “One of those men who could start a fire with two sticks, could change a flat tire with one hand tied behind his back, and wasn’t afraid that a snow shovel would scuff his cashmerelined leather Burberry gloves” (38).  His difference (figured as both gender and class difference) is what she finds erotic, what she fetishizes, while her difference makes him deeply anxious. Masculinity is a matter of class (as he acknowledges when he derides the well-dressed newbie agents straight out of Ivy  League educations), and class is defined scathingly (by both Nick and Jordan) along the lines of ability vs. appearance: “In Nick’s opinion, the only accessories an FBI agent should pair with a suit were a shoulder harness and gun.  Maybe handcuffs, depending on the formality of the occasion” (19). It’s like a terrible inversion of the complete works of Oscar Wilde. Rather than being presented as a genuine flaw, which would have been a frankly fascinating dissection of the erotics of alphaness, his narrow idea of masculinity is tsked and then endorsed.  

So, as always, I found that Julie James is a master of sexual tension and relationship-mapping, but, to a lesser extent than in her other novels, there are always small elements that rankled ideologically for me.  More than this, there is always something a little … light about these novels, in a way that I don’t think is necessarily true about romance as a genre (or even non-angsty romance). Let me take this to the meta level: for me the success of a romance novel, like any other novel, is in the extent to which it uses its form to address some larger issue in an interesting way (in other words, whether it is about something) rather than in how well it executes its arc of sexual tension and its evocation of character, although the former is useless without the latter.  This novel does the latter really well, but the former… I’m finding that harder to locate in contemporary romance than in historicals.

A Lot Like Love
Julie James
Finished January 8, 2012 in the wee hours of the morning
Book #2 of 2012 (!!)

Stray notes:

  • Interestingly, although it is often the alpha hero who must be coaxed into emotional honesty, here it is Jordan who has problems with true intimacy.  After a particularly disastrous failure of communication with Nick, she says to her twin brother (a “cyberterrorist” who has been jailed for crashing Twitter (really? Twitter goes down all the time)), “Do you ever think we’re not … open enough?… With our feelings, I mean.  I suppose we are kind of sarcastic sometimes” (206).  Needless to say, this very conversation is a violation of their bond of non-openness.  But even as she said it, I was thinking, “Wow.  And I was just admiring her for being more mature and self-protecting with Nick than I, with my zeal for emotional intimacy and, er, histrionics, ever would have been.  Is self-protection a flaw?  Isn’t dignity, after all, another word for emotional restraint?
  • There are definite moments of cheese sprinkled throughout the novel. I won’t inflict them on you, but caveat emptor.
  • This novel is a model of how to bring back characters from a previous volume.  Cranky Agent Pallas makes numerous appearances amidst great sexual tension with both DA Cameron Lynde and (homosocially speaking) Nick.  I hate it when characters abruptly fade to inconsequence after we’ve been taught to invest so much in their subjectivity in previous novels, so I really admired this.   Especially fine was the moment in which Pallas, obviously ambitious, admits that he is ceding the first massive career achievement to Cameron, with obvious pride in the fact that she “got there first.”  At the same time, I’d like to have gotten a greater sense of differentiation between that couple and this one: in what ways are these individual people with their own philosophical and social problems rather than an echo of types we see come together again and again in James’s work?
  • This is one of those novels in which the hero is entranced by the heroine’s pleasure in consumption.  I’m going to call this trope a “Tom Jones” - the erotics of food and drink.

3 Responses so far.

  1. willaful says:

    "a Tom Jones" -- awesome!

    "I’m finding that harder to locate in contemporary romance than in historicals." -- I feel the same. This may be why it's rare for me to feel as strongly about contemporaries as I do about historicals. There's very little in them to inspire passion in me.

  2. I know, right? I enjoy contemporaries for the crafting of place and community, but they all blend together in a way that my favorite historicals don't. There are exceptions (Megan Hart and Jenny Crusie come to mind immediately, although I don't think it is always true of either), but I find contemporaries to be by and large more ideologically troubling and less intellectually substantial than historicals. WHY? It's not as though love is less philosophically or socially interesting in the modern world than it was a hundred, two hundred, or five hundred years ago.

  3. "my mother even had a game to keep me amused in wine stores, so often were we there: Find the Animals on the Wine Labels"

    Did she learn this from your grandmother? I remember you wrote a post just a few days ago in which you recalled that

    I turned to my grandmother and said, "Nonna, I remember when I was little you always told me, when I encountered these rather complex engravings, that I should always start by searching for the man with the dog. It strikes me now that you knew exactly the way to get a very small person involved in art."

    Anyway, re

    I find contemporaries to be by and large more ideologically troubling and less intellectually substantial than historicals. WHY?

    I wonder if this is because a lot of contemporaries are trying very hard not to offend readers, so they end up doing a strange balancing act to appease readers coming from a range of different political perspectives.

    With historicals, it's much easier to show the heroine being oppressed (she can't vote or go to university!), or one political party being oppressive (they're in favour of child labour!) or show the characters being enlightened on issues related to class/race (our hero may be an aristocrat but at least he doesn't expect the maids to have sex with him/doesn't have slaves!) without offending modern readers. The issues are big, but the specifics of the injustices the characters fight are in the past and since the starting points for debates about women's rights, child labour, workplace harassment and racism have moved on since the periods in which historicals are set, authors of historicals aren't likely to offend readers if they take a strong stand on the issues.

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