Wild Sweet Love
I generally find myself rolling my eyes when I read a girl-in-pants historical novel. They seem to be packed with clichés and full of overdrawn characters. So when I flipped through Wild Sweet Love and noticed how often the heroine gallivanted about in a pair of leather pants, I worried. My fears were unfounded, as Jenkins wrote complex and mature characters.
Teresa July comes from a frontier family of outlaws and very early on took up bank robbing and train hold-ups. When her brother Neil chooses to go legit for the love of a woman, Teresa throws herself even more passionately into her crimes. Eventually she is caught and sentenced to prison time back East. After saving the life of a matron in a prison scramble, Teresa is paroled for good behavior and entrusted to the care of Molly Nance, a leading figure in Philadelphia’s black community. Molly and Teresa soon become friends and Molly is determined to teach Teresa how to behave as a lady ought.
Molly’s son Madison, a gambler-turned-banker and pillar of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, has his doubts about Teresa. He worries about his mother and dislikes Teresa’s brash, upfront manner. However, his antagonistic relationship with Teresa soon flowers into a teasing friendship complicated by a healthy dose of lust.
There is a balance of internal and external conflict in the story. Teresa is determined to head back West after her parole expires and Madison cannot fit a former female outlaw into his current life as a banker and leader in Philadelphia’s black high society. However, they do not indulge in angst and instead explore their relationship with a remarkably mature sense of carpe diem. Complicating their relationship are threats posed by the corrupt Republican ward boss and Teresa’s precarious position as a paroled criminal.
Despite my initial misgivings, Teresa was a well-drawn and complex character. She consistently avoids silly behavior and instead strives to learn and grow from her experiences. She remains true to her honest but short-tempered character even as she strives to learn and mature in the foreign environment of Philadelphia. The only thing that fell flat for me was Teresa’s slightly naive nature – she has all of the passion and outrageousness one would expect of a former outlaw, but none of the hardness of a career criminal.
Jenkins also does a good job of placing Teresa and Madison’s relationship within a set of family and community relationships. Molly is a splendid character and the friendship between her and Teresa is well-drawn. The complexity and diversity of black life in Philadelphia is vividly described as well. Madison is heavily involved in the doings of the Seventh Ward and takes much pride in showing Teresa around the city. When the action moves to Kansas, Teresa’s family is also brought into the story.
Two issues held this book back. First, the love scenes were unabashedly purple. Manroots and pleasure buds abound, and I was unable to take the sex seriously. Second, the tone of the book was a little too sweet for the story to make a deep impact. Humor and touching relationships were written well but the conflicts were resolved too glibly for my tastes. While I appreciate the lack of needless angst, a meatier serving of conflict would have been appreciated.
These issues aside, Wild Sweet Love was an engaging and enjoyable love story that avoided the majority of girl-in-pants clichés. Jenkins writes romance featuring grown-up men and women, which I greatly appreciate.