I have read very few novels that feature African Americans as both hero and heroine, and I know very little of Black U.S. history after the Civil War, so I was keen to read Breathless, which is set in the Arizona Territory in the 1880s. The novel is the second volume in a trilogy, but everything you need to know from the first volume, Forbidden, is summed up. However, if you want to read Forbidden as well, you might wish to do so before opening Breathless, as it contains many spoilers for the earlier book.
Portia Carmichael, daughter of a Denver prostitute, has come a long way. Adopted by her aunt at age twelve, she now runs the family hotel – The Fontaine – near Tucson. She lived in San Francisco for a time and attended Oberlin College, and her dream is to start her own accountancy firm. What is not part of her plans is a husband. Due to her mother’s profession, she is very wary of men and snubs all her suitors.
That is, until Kent Randolph turns up. Kent used to work for her aunt and uncle when Portia and her sister first joined them, and because she hid her mistrust of men under a verneer of aloofness back then, he called her “Duchess”. Although he is a doctor’s son and was destined for the same career path, Kent only wanted to be a cowboy and has spent the last few years moving around. But now he is keen to settle down, and he gladly accepts a position working for Portia’s uncle.
Kent is instantly smitten with Portia, and in fact she also falls for him at first sight, although she denies it to herself for a time. Everybody else at the hotel is aware that these two are just made for each other, and they tease Portia and push her at Kent in turn. Kent always knows what Portia is thinking, especially if it concerns himself, and so is in no doubt about her attraction to him; his only worry is whether she will eventually accept him as a husband.
So that’s the romance plot. A lot more might have been done without drawing in external obstacles, like really playing on Portia’s shyness of men, or on Kent’s fear of admitting some shady parts of his past. But no, all this is mentioned once and then dealt with in one conversation to the satisfaction of all parties.
In addition, there is too much telling and not enough showing, especially regarding Portia’s character. She is über-competent and Kent enthuses about her “bear-trap mind”, but does she show it in action? No. Instead she and Kent remain rather two-dimensional.
The sexual attraction is actually handled quite nicely, with various scenes of kissing and finally lots of enthusiastic sex, which is not described in graphic detail. If you are happy with warm sex scenes, however, this is might be a good choice for you.
As for me, I was impatient while reading the first half of the book, because I expected more from the romance. Once I gave up on it, however, and started reading the novel as a portrait of Black society in the West in the last part of the 19th century, I really enjoyed it. There are lots of small but interesting details, like the women’s society and the importance of having a White man lead a posse, or the fact that a black restaurant owner can’t entertain white and black guests at the same time, which engrossed me. The nomenclature is different from what we would use now, and it sounded authentic to me. What overshadows everything is how the black characters need to “better the race” in all they do. There are also fascinating details about the black women’s suffrage movement.
While the romance is rather so-so, the historical background is strong in Breathless. While I can’t give the book a wholehearted recommendation, let me add that I may well pick up another Beverly Jenkins novel on the basis of her subject matter alone.