From Eloisa James's "READING ROMANCE" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
One of my ex-boyfriends is in love. He called Christmas Day to say that he's never been so happy (and in case you're wondering whether that touch of insensitivity was characteristic -- it was). An on-line program managed to find a woman whose ambitions, background, job, and habits match his precisely. After one date, they were a couple, and, after one month, they were sharing a front door: "We speak the same language," he purred. But not all relationships arrive with an easy click or two of the computer keys. According to the novels in this column, the best relationships might be hard-won, those in which partners find each other (at least initially) incomprehensible.
Robin Kaye's Yours for the Taking puts an urban twist on a classic tale of marriage-for-convenience: Ben Walsh needs a wife or he'll lose his inheritance, and Gina Reyez could really use the money he offers. She's not worried about intimacy issues, because it's patently obvious that Ben is gay: he's incredibly well-dressed, owns an art gallery, cooks like a dream, and decorated his own apartment. Gina, on the other hand, is a fierce Latina businesswoman who wears five-inch heels and lots of red lipstick. He grew up in a loving family; her mother was a sex worker and her father was an abusive drug addict. They don't have class, education, or gender in common -- and even after Gina figures out that her gaydar has malfunctioned, their inability to understand each other almost leads to heartbreak. Yours for the Takingis a treat to read, and a sweet, funny way to start the New Year.
Laura Lee Guhrke's Wedding of the Season puts together a hero and heroine matched by class, but little else. Lady Beatrix Danbury was betrothed to William Mallory, the Duke of Sunderland, but a few days before the wedding, Will jilted his fiancèe, broke her heart, and left on an archaeological dig. He did his best to impress Beatrix with the allure of King Tutankhamen's tomb, which for her remained merely "clay pots and cylinder seals." Six year later, Beatrix is on the verge of marrying another duke when Will reappears in England. But they still have no way to talk to each other: she thinks the life of an archaeologist is madness; he thinks the life of a duke is meaningless. Beatrix puts her finger on the main problem: "To be married -- happily, at least -- two people have to want the same things, share the same view of their life." When Beatrix and Will finally find a way to bridge the chasm between Egypt and England, between a dig and the Ascot, the relief is delicious. Happiness between two people who have to learn each other's language is hard won and, I would argue, all the more joyful for the turmoil that precedes it.
The hero and heroine of Vicki Lewis Thompson's A Werewolf in Manhattan would never be paired by a respectable matchmaker. Aidan Wallace wears an $800,000 watch, and Emma Gavin takes the subway to save fossil fuel. But this couple is separated by more than class: they have physiology against them as well. Emma is a bestselling writer of paranormal romances about werewolves -- and Aidan is the son of a rich and powerful werewolf pack leader. Add in the fact that sexual tension makes Aiden sprout hair on his hands (and other places), plus a rogue werewolf threatening to tell Emma the truth, and A Werewolf in Manhattan spins into a delicious fantasy about a woman and a werewolf with absolutely nothing in common. Thomas's hilarious story pops with funny references to big white teeth, fur overcoats, and possible puppies. But in the midst of all that laughter, this tale of people from utterly different worlds -- and gene pools -- is fascinating.
Ava Gray's Skin Heat poses a similar type of problem to that of Gina and her werewolf, but with a darker edge. Zeke Noble has escaped from a secret medical facility where he was the subject of reckless and immoral experiments. Once free, he discovers he can no longer read, and words come to him slowly. On the good side, he's much stronger, can hear a whisper miles away, and feels unnervingly able to understand and to connect to animals. Geneva Harper also has an instinctive connection to animals -- but no more than any other vet. She's the daughter of a mill owner, who grew up in luxury and fought for the right to have a career. Zeke is the child of a drunk, whose mother committed suicide; as a boy he mowed Geneva's family lawn. More importantly, perhaps, she's normal and he -- isn't. When things go awry, their perspectives are worlds apart. But when Zeke tells Geneva that he "cares so much I don't have the words," it's a deeply romantic declaration of love between people whom no one would believe had a chance at happiness.
Christina Henry's Black Wings brings together the most antithetical pair of all: an angel (albeit an earthly one) and a devil. Madeline Black is an agent of death, which means that she gets a white envelope every Friday giving her a list of souls that she's supposed to convince to enter "the Door." Maddie narrates her adventures with jaunty wit: to her, death is "just another bureaucracy." She takes a break from filing to rent her downstairs apartment to "a handsome devil," according to her pet gargoyle. As it turns out, Gabriel Angeloscuro is indeed a devil (not to mention gorgeous). Maddie not only doesn't understand him or his motives for moving into her house, but she soon finds that she herself is manifesting some baffling powers. Christina Henry takes the situation in which a man and woman don't understand each other a step further by broadening the areas of potential misunderstanding to heaven and its opposite.
Match.com and its brethren promise that their computer programs will find the perfect person, leading to meaningful, deep, and long-term relationships. And maybe that's true. But these novels tempt one to leap in at the deep end: to believe that people who have nothing in common, and can't understand each other's motives, ambitions or actions, can fall in love -- and that love so hard won will be hard kept.