Desert Isle Keeper
As a reviewer who drops in on Twitter, Goodreads, and the lot, I’ve grown accustomed to taking rave reviews for books with a grain of salt. When I saw the buzz Queen Move was getting, I hoped it would be good, but I didn’t count on it.
Well, guess what? It’s as good as everyone says. It might even be better.
Kimba Allen meets Ezra Stern when they’re both infants. His white Jewish mother and black non-religious father have recently moved to Atlanta, where the powerhouse Allen family are the first to help the Sterns feel at home. Kimba and Ezra grow closer as they grow up, culminating in their first kiss in eighth grade – the same night the Stern and Allen parents fight, and the Sterns leave Atlanta, never to return.
Kimba becomes a political kingmaker, having recently managed the campaign for the newly elected U.S. president. Her passion for her career has interfered with her personal life, something she has been willing to defer until a medical test reveals she is, at just thirty-seven, in perimenopause. Ezra, meanwhile, becomes a PhD educator who founds a local private school for low-income kids. He also meets a photographer named Aiko and has a son with her. After years of couples therapy to try to make things work, Ezra has begun the process of breaking up with Aiko when he meets Kimba again, as she presents him with an award from her family foundation.
This book is exquisitely paced. From the opening at Kimba’s father’s funeral, jumping back to their childhood, and then ahead to the present, the author creates narrative tension by avoiding infodumps, making us wait, wonder, and learn. She also makes every scene matter, which is a challenge in time-skip stories where we know where we’re going. I actually enjoyed reading Young Kimba and Young Ezra. Their scenes were independently interesting (for instance, Ezra dealing with racism related to being a Jew of color) but also essential to the plot, setting up the lifelong pull between Kimba and Ezra. The author has to convince us that despite the near-endless obstacles life throws in their way, these two people are inevitable together, non-paranormal fated mates. And they are!
Both Kimba and Ezra have complicated identities, and what makes them so perfect for each other is how they respect and fit every corner of one another Ezra is black, Jewish, a father, an educator, a writer, and a sexual man. Kimba is a black female boss in a male-dominated field, an Allen in Atlanta, and a woman balancing career, desire, and fertility. Big and small gestures show how they understand each other. Baptist Kimba brings Ezra’s son a book featuring a brown-skinned Jewish boy (the book, Ezra’s BIG Shabbat Question, is a real and lovely children’s book!). Ezra gives Kimba space when she needs it to deal with the emotional side of her perimenopause.
Another extraordinary achievement: every single character in this book is fully rounded, and we’re talking about a cast of dozens. Ezra’s mother Ruth tries to make a life in Atlanta while longing for her Jewish community in New York. Aiko, Ezra’s partner and the mother of their son, could so easily have been a villain, but instead is a complicated woman balancing career, parenthood, emotional intimacy, and her own sexual fulfillment. (I respected and loved Ezra so much more for how he handles the complicated situation with Aiko). An actor playing any role in this book would have something meaty to work with.
Is there anything to dislike about this book? Well, it accurately represents life, which means that it’s messy. Ezra is not fully disentangled from Aiko, and I’ve seen readers leave comments that they want heroes who are completely unattached. If that’s you, you may struggle. Kimba will stay true to what she needs for her emotional and mental health, even if that means she and Ezra can’t be together when the reader might be ready for them to be. Also, while Kimba’s career is hugely important to her and a full part of her identity, Ezra’s is less so. Mostly, the author focuses on the book he’s writing about his school, not the actual work of running it. And while not egregious like many sequel-bait guest appearances, references to previous Ryan heroines pulled me out of this story when they occurred.
But that’s small potatoes. The scope of this novel’s achievement is staggering. It’s diverse and political without being a polemic. The plot is perfectly paced. The supporting characters and the setting are rich and nuanced, and yet never at the cost of fully-realized protagonists and their inexorable, near-gravitational attraction to each other.
We’re only halfway through 2020, with six months of authors hoping their new releases will make this year’s “best of” lists. All of them will be chasing Kennedy Ryan. The queen, as the book points out, is the most powerful piece in chess, and Queen Move is the queen of the 2020 romance board. It’s going to be damn hard to beat.