Trust is a far reaching issue in romance. There are heroes who doubt heroines, and heroines who lack faith in heroes, and authors who don’t trust their readers. Two of those trust issues manage to faithfully resolve themselves before the happily ever after. The third is a real problem. Too often romances are plagued by authors who write down to their readers, over simplify and over explain. Unsurprisingly, the resulting fiction is a joyless chore. Authors who write intelligently, in anticipation of an intelligent readership are a rare, but welcome, find. Romance that trusts the reader not only engages, but begs the question: why isn’t all romance like this? Why isn’t intelligent writing a minimum requirement for the genre? Why isn’t it a starting point from which to improve, instead of an exceptional find?
Susan Donovan trusts her audience: it’s obvious in the way she takes a well used romance setup and treats it as though it hasn’t been done over and over again; it’s obvious from the way she doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator; and it’s obvious from the way she expects the reader to keep up with her writing instead of spoon feeding every bit of information.
The title of her latest, The Kept Woman, doesn’t pull its punches. The reader knows from the cover what’s in store, setup-wise: there’s a woman who needs money, a man who needs a service, and at some point, their arrangement will turn personal just before it becomes very public. What the reader won’t know until she agrees to go along for Donovan’s ride is that Donovan treats this familiar – and sometimes eye rolling – construct with the sobriety and respect one would expect of an original idea. While the tone of the work is never heavy or pompous, Donovan takes the work seriously enough to ground her characters, making them and their choices believable as opposed to dismissible actions that only serve the setup. The result is a solidly constructed romance that delights by doing the most basic things very well.
Samantha Monroe is the divorced hairdresser mother of three who, despite her best efforts, is sinking into a financial abyss, putting her dreams aside, and losing the potty training battle with her three year old. Jack Tolliver is the one-time football star and politician seeking a Senate seat who, after a disastrous election bid, needs to tone down his public image as a womanizing playboy and convince the voters he’s a one woman man. They are both motivated enough, or desperate enough as the case may be, to agree to Kara DeMarinis’ (long time client of Samantha’s and political consultant to Jack) suggestion that Samantha pose as Jack’s fiancée for the length of his latest campaign. What starts out as a business transaction, where payment is given for services rendered, morphs into a real courtship wherein two people who seem to have very little in common discover that the other is exactly what they never knew they always needed.
Politics has long been don’t-go-there-land for romance, but setting this particular romance in a political arena is an inspired choice. It simply doesn’t seem far-fetched that a politician – or his election campaign staff – would go to such lengths to fabricate an image for a candidate. In fact, this seems considerably more reasonable than the slick, spin doctored politicos that show up on the nightly news. Donovan completely avoids politics and partisanship and wisely stays away from the sticky morality that comes with lying to voters. The last part isn’t a sidestep as once Samantha comes into Jack’s life, he stops dating everything that moves, and he and Samantha begin a very real relationship. That Samantha is a kept woman becomes more of a sly wink instead of an outright lie.
It’s rather common for romances to rely on supped up sexual settings (upscale lingerie/sex toy stores, ect) to lend the stories sexiness. But Donovan doesn’t take that route. Jack and Samantha are sexual adults who don’t need a store full of pink fuzzy handcuffs to jump start or further their desire for one another. Together they become a sexy, explosive couple. Jack is a man’s man who’s sexy not because the reader is repeatedly told about his appeal, but rather because Jack’s actions are appealing. He’s confident of his prowess, yet delightfully blindsided by Samantha. He isn’t afraid to demand that Samantha talk dirty to him nor is he shy about the impact her potty mouth has on him. Samantha meets her sexuality and her feelings for Jack head on in a manner that’s a refreshing break from heroines who deliberately misunderstand life.
All of this goodness is marred by a rather large fly in the ointment: Mitchell Bergen. Samantha’s ex-husband leaves her abruptly (after their tenth anniversary when Sam is pregnant with their third child) and dramatically (he announces that he’s gay). It also turns out that all the years Samantha supported Mitchell during their marriage, she was also supporting his cocaine habit. All of that is easy enough for the reader to go along with; nothing there jumps out as too fantastic to believe, but rather fits with Donovan’s solid character constructions. As does Mitchell’s disappearing act and failure to pay child support (where would he get the money to pay considering Samantha supported him during their marriage?). With such back story and the ongoing anger Samantha harbors for him, it’s only logical that Mitchell will turn up at the worst possible moment to wreck the most havoc. That sort of conflict is the heart of all drama. But, that conflict needs to be well motivated and in keeping with what has been established for a character. It’s easy to follow Donovan when Mitchell agrees to help expose Samantha’s sham engagement (he is sufficiently motivated with the lure that his back child support will be paid and he’ll be able to see his children again), but it’s impossible to continue following along when Mitchell’s actions go beyond the guy-who-made-poor-decisions-and-wants-to-get-back-on-track and turns into blackmail and extortion. His actions simply do not follow. The leap is too great.
Mitchell’s actions are further questionable because The Kept Woman already has a bad guy: reporter Christy Schoen. Much to Donovan’s credit, she takes the great Satan of romance novels, the press, and creates a setting where a reporter should be, following a political campaign, and then creates a back story that allows that reporter to seek personal vengeance, Jack dumped Christy in a publicly embarrassing way. Christy is the character with not only the skills but, more importantly, the motivation, to ferret out the truth of Samantha and Jack’s relationship and then use that truth to do the greatest harm. Mitchell’s actions undermine Christy’s raison d’etre and upstage the hundreds of pages of setup that build towards Christy’s hunt for the truth and anticipated reveal.
On the whole, The Kept Woman succeeds despite Mitchell, though his unfounded actions do tarnish the enjoyment. With the exception of the story’s final turning point, Donovan writes with considerable respect for both romance and its readers. In a genre that routinely puts out work that feels more like Frankenstein’s salvaged and badly held together monster, Donovan’s work is original, fresh, and welcome.
You can visit Susan here and purchase this book here and here.