Timmothy B. McCann is the latest author to enter the booming African-American fiction market, following the path blazed by Terry McMillan and Eric Jerome Dickey. His first novel, Until. . ., mines the already well-worked vein of contemporary male-female relationships, much of which will seem familiar to fans of the genre.
Betty Robinson is the thirtysomething heroine of the book, a successful lawyer who has almost convinced herself that maybe, just maybe, she can finally “exhale” with her current boyfriend, a sweetly attentive baker named Evander. Drew Staley is the male protagonist, slowly recovering from the agonizing death of his fiancée, and burying himself in work at his financial planning firm. By night, over a long period of time, Betty and Drew chat online as “DeltaDream” and “DLastRomeo,” sharing their life stories and hopes, without realizing that they live in the same town.
McCann captures the excitement and odd emotional intimacy of soul-baring typed conversation between strangers online. (Although the online service is obviously a thinly-disguised America Online, he did seem to edit out the dozens of “instant messages” Betty would have received during their long conversations-the ones asking “R U HOTT??” and the like.) The emails and chats between “DeltaDream” and “Romeo,” as well as the general chatroom conversations, are some of the most enjoyable parts of the book.
McCann also has an ear for dialogue, especially in the scenes with Evander’s family, and the “just us girls” conversations between Betty and her best friend Jacqui. The dialogue is what gives the story its punch, as well as some very humorous moments, and I truly enjoyed “listening” to characters advise and dish on each other.
Unfortunately, some of the mechanics of the plot and writing are not so smoothly handled. The pacing of the book was very uneven, at times spending pages upon pages developing fairly insignificant sidelines to the main plot, and other times, glossing over long-awaited scenes (such as the first real-time conversation between Betty and Drew) in a mere paragraph. This is frustrating when the entire momentum of the book has set the reader up to anticipate that moment. The plot also relied a bit too heavily on things that are fast becoming cliches of the genre, such as jolting encounters with racism and unexpected betrayal by bad men.
McCann is still learning his craft as a writer, and this is his first book. This shows in the somewhat contrived ways that he makes transitions to flashbacks, like the faded picture that turns up for no apparent reason on Betty’s floor, inducing a lengthy memory of her mother’s and stepfather’s tempestuous relationship. It also leads to confusing descriptions with way too much going on in them, such as this one:
It seemed the stars themselves spelled words, as a yellow and orange ball cast shards of light against the horizon. On this morning everything it graced turned into shades of crimson as Betty cracked a window and was welcomed by a wisp of warm air greeting her exposed midriff.
These moments are redeemed by the dialogue, and by Drew and Betty’s likability as characters. Their concerns and aspirations are refreshingly real and down to earth, particularly as I have been recuprating from an overdose of alpha heroes and contrived melodrama in my mainstream romance reading of late. If you are seeking a typical romance, Until. . . might not be for you – Betty and Drew spend far too much of the book pursuing romantic dead ends, before discovering only the first glimmer of emotional attachment for each other in the last thirty pages of the book. But if you find that a long wait while holding one’s breath makes exhaling feel even better, you may find that Until. . . is your kind of story.