Politics in Romance: An Often Uneasy Blend

Sometimes life can be terribly ironic. Just as I was arguing on the message boards how much I dislike politics in my books I found myself reading a book that defined exactly why that was. The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll is the story of TifAni FaNelli, a young woman who has had the same goal from the ages of 14 to 28: To finally get in with the “in crowd”. To that end, TifAni has buffed and polished her body until it is a work of art. She spends a great deal of time sharing with the reader nuggets of wisdom such as just what designers mark you as Nouve Riche and which mark you as chic, which restaurants mark you as “in the know” and which diets show you are committed to your beauty. She tells us how smart she is and how working at a glossy magazine writing sex articles on how to pleasure your boyfriend is just a step she is taking on her way to the New York Times. Included in all this is TiFani’s guide to love. She is “the luckiest girl alive” partly because she is marrying Luke, with the beautiful, WASPy last name of Harrison, who comes from old money and who, by marrying her, will give her that final, societal stamp of approval she has been waiting for far too long.

I didn’t like TifAni. It seemed childish to spend 14 years trying to become popular but even beyond that, TifAni is just mean. She’s judgmental of stay at home moms and extremely critical of the family she is about to marry into, she says nasty horrible, things about any woman carrying an ounce of fat anywhere, and judges every other woman by how “New York” she manages to appear. Here’s a lovely scene where she talks about her fiancés cousin:

Hallsy is only thirty-nine and already her face is pulled tight as a pair of Lululemon yoga pants across a plus-sized girl’s rear. She’s never been married, which she’ll tell you she never wants to be even though she hangs all over every remotely f*ckable guy after a single drink, while they gently untangle her Marshmallow Man arms from around their stiff necks. It’s no wonder the only ring on her finger is the Cartier Trinity, what with the way she’s ruined her face and the fact that she spends more time sunning on the beach than she should running on a treadmill. . . Women like Hallsy are my specialty. You should have seen the expression on her sci-fi looking face the first time I met her, when I had the audacity to say that while not everyone in the room may support Obama’s politics, I think we can all agree he is a supremely intelligent man.

If you can’t tell from that scene, TifAni is a self-described feminist and democrat. She’s also a hypocrite:

Luke and his entire family, his friends, their wives voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. His pro-personhood bullshit could prevent rape and incest victims, women whose lives were in danger, from having an abortion. It could shut down Planned Parenthood.

“How can you vote for someone with a stance like that?”

“Because I don’t care, Ani.” Luke sighed. My silly feminist wrath had been cute once.

She does not break up with Luke, her fiancé, after this scene.

TifAni had me rethinking my vote in the 2012 election. It is deeply disturbing to me to think that I could have anything in common with such a hypocritical, nasty person. From the moment she betrayed her friends for the cool kids in high school till the end of the novel, she was nothing more than a shallow, social climbing little witch. Any changes she made over the course of the 352 pages we spent together were insufficient to erase my extreme dislike. (Not to add that even when she changed she stayed the same in that she hurt several people who had done nothing but be kind to her.)

TifAni is why I don’t like politics in my books. The mouthpieces are often people who don’t live out the so called standards they eschew. For example, a feminist who ridicules single women, mocks women who are overweight and lives off her boyfriend. Oh, and who feels that getting a ring from a man is some sort of status symbol! She judged Mitt Romney but felt comfortable marrying someone who would vote for him because the guy had money. I am not saying we have to marry only those who agree with us politically but TifAni had no courage behind her convictions. It would have been far better to have cut any scenes depicting her political leanings.

I can remember another time that politics dragged me out of my enjoyment of a novel. Lady Liberty by Vicki Hinze was a 2002 release that had a scene which made many deeply uncomfortable. It is the story of Vice President Sybil Stone and Agent Jonathan Westford, who are dealing with a world crisis. The nation believes them missing or dead. In this scene, Sybil talks about her close friend the president.

“I’m concerned about David. He promised to restore integrity to his office and he meant it. Lying to the public about us has got to grate at him.”

“I’m sure it’s had him on his knees in the Oval Office. But if it can keep us alive then he has to do it.”

His meaning escaped her, but a fearful shudder rippled through her chest. “On his knees in the Oval Office?”

“Never Mind.”

“No way.” No one had forgotten the events that previously occurred in the Oval Office, and if David had broken his promise to the people, then she damn well needed to know. “Tell me what you meant.”

Jonathan picked up on the distrust in her tone and gave her a look laced with reprimand. “He prays there often. Privately.”

Given the timing of the novel – and the fact that someone being on their knees caused Sybil to be upset – it is pretty clear just who Ms. Hinze felt disgraced the Oval Office. I found the idea of a President disturbed by command decisions that involved deceiving the enemy and who didn’t have a clear separation of church and state as disturbing as she had clearly found the Clinton administration. While this scene was far milder than the scenes in Luckiest Girl Alive it turned me off of the writers work. I have one of her books languishing on my TBR and haven’t been tempted to pick it up in years. Which is a shame because her early romantic suspense novels sans the politics were really good.

I’ve read plenty of novels that don’t speak to party affiliation but show it. For example, having the republican senator turn into a homicidal maniac might not come with a direct statement on how much better the democrats are but it does make it pretty clear what the author thinks of that party. When the democrat is a boozy sleaze that is an equally clear message. No matter how subtly this is presented I am almost always pulled out of the tale. Why? Because it reminds me that I am reading a book. It gives me a glimpse of the woman behind the curtain who is pulling all the strings.

Before I upset too many, yes, I know that politics can be done right in a story. Tiffany Girl by Deeanne Gist deals with equality for women by having the main character need money and showing how some men made it difficult for her to earn a living. The story is effective in how it depicts everyday injustice while still delivering on the romance. Changes by Pamela Nowak showed the terrible cruelty and bigotry the government utilized in the treatment of Native Americans while still delivering a heartwarming romance. Badlands by Jill Sorenson dealt with racism and politics without ever derailing the love story it was telling. What each of these tales had going for them is that the issues discussed arose naturally from the characters’ story. It wasn’t just filler so that we knew where the author stood politically.

In the best case scenarios the author will leave us guessing as to what she thinks of the situation. Or they will at least humanize the opposing side. Chris Brohan did this with a Nazi soldier in The Light in the Ruins. In the Arms of the Enemy by Lisbeth Eng is another book that shows a German soldier in WWII as more than just a mindless killer. If we can find positives about people who worked for Hitler, I am convinced we can find it in Americans who take a slightly different view of politics than ours.

But for the most part I am of the conviction that it is better to just leave the subject alone.

What do you think – do you like politics in your books? Have you ever been turned off by an author’s verbalizing of a political situation, even if you agree with her? Which authors do you feel do it right?

–Maggie Boyd

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