Just finished Rowena MacDonald’s The Threat Level Remains Severe, published in 2017. The book is not a romance, although the first third of the book does fool one into thinking we are going to be following a romantic relationship, albeit one between two people who may not be totally likable.
Threat Level reminds me slightly of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, only not all the characters are towards the end of their work life or are even working in the same office. Instead, in MacDonald’s story, we first begin to follow three people who are all committee staff for two different committees in the House of Lords and the House of Commons in the U.K. Parliament. They are basically functionaries assisting MPs and Lords in their daily business. (And, as someone who works in Washington, I related a great deal to their feelings about their work and their sense of never-ending tedium beneath the alleged “excitement” of politics.) The majority of time is spent with Grace Ambrose a 30 year old who staffs the Commons’ Economic Scrutiny Committee. She’s been at this job for years, which has lost all its luster, and is stuck in its boring comfort. Late twenties, Brett Beamish, arrives to work for the Committee and shakes things up with his work ethic, ambition, and calculated upbeat attitude. Beamish, originally from Australia, has been making his way, one stepping stone at a time, gaining experience and hoping for that ultimate position of power and money. In the first third of the book we see him shake up Grace’s office and watch them circle each other.
Added to this situation is a third character. Grace hasn’t been in a relationship for some time and longs for a man with an artist’s heart, someone as far from a functionary or a political go-getter as possible. Lo and behold, she begins receiving anonymous emails from a man who has been admiring her. Someone who says he, too, works for Parliament. He seems to be exactly what she’s looking for. He’s an aspiring musician, who writes poetry. Eventually, he reveals his name: Reuben Swift, and Grace and he finally plan to meet — despite the fact that Brett Beamish has started to become less of an annoyance and more of a distraction for her.
The second third of the book focuses on Grace’s email-sending admirer. We learn who he really is, where he works, and what his life is actually like. We also see his side of the conversation that he begins with Grace and how he responds to her increasing curiosity.
The last third of the book reveals the truth to all, and deals with the unexpectedly serious fall-out of Grace’s interactions with both Beamish and her admirer. As I said, this is not a romance but everyone does get an ending that is — for them — happy, although I did think Grace’s came a bit out of nowhere.
For those of you looking for something a bit different to read, as a palate-cleanser, this book might be the thing for you.