Umm, a book with politics and romance? Sign me up. Unfortunately, this is already a very difficult subject to get right, and when you add an enemies to lovers trope, a notoriously difficult storyline to get right, it’s a tough line to walk.
Plot: Emma and Cooper were best friends as kids. Then Cooper turned out to be a womanizing, selfish asshole, Emma turned out to have the maturity of a 4 year old, and they grew apart. So now they work together in an economic development office for their town and fight all the time. Cooper has decided to run for mayor to succeed Emma’s dad, who has been mayor for over 2 decades, to continue his work. He’s up against a long time city councillor who wants to bring big box stores to the town. It should be a slam dunk, but people don’t like how much Cooper sleeps around (mostly because his judgement in WHO he sleeps around with is absolutely terrible). Emma is tasked with turning around his reputation and help him win or risk a mayor who is antagonistic to the work of her department. Shenanigans ensue.
I had high hopes for this book, because I live and breath politics and public service. I shared Emma’s frustration with people and the media constantly misunderstanding and misrepresenting what government can do at any level, especially since journalists are supposed to actually do some research before they say things.
The problem is that no part of this book really works.
Let’s start with the writing. The entire book is written from Emma’s POV, which means everything that isn’t in quotes is her thoughts. Yet for some reason, some thoughts are in italics. In addition, there are also some thoughts are identified thusly – EMMA THOUGHT: where was the editor for this book. That is three separate ways of identifying an internal thought. Why.
The dialogue likewise badly needed revision. Here is an example of a line of dialogue: “That’s all I am to you? Your opinion about me hasn’t changed at all. I’m just the same guy without any redeeming qualities.” Who talks like this? It felt like a combination of more traditional approach to dialogue (that written dialogue should be better than how people talk normally) and modern view on dialogue (that focuses on realism) and ending up doing neither.
This attempt to be all things to all people creates problems not only in the style but also in the characterization and plot. Al the characters are flat and two dimensional. If the character is a man, being attractive means being good. If the character is a woman, being attractive means being bad (except our lead). And that’s basically it.
Cooper is supposed to be a lothario with a heart of gold, but every woman he’s slept with has intensely hard feelings, which tells me he is not being honest with his partners. He refuses to call Emma by her preferred name, instead calling her Emmanuelle, because he prefers it. He’s literally the richest, most influential person in town (his mother is the Governor, a fact he uses to get what he wants, ethics be damned, and his family literally built the town). He doesn’t get why that would be alienating in a small town where no one else can afford bespoke clothing. He is screwing up on the job, forcing everyone else on the team to pick up his slack, because he’s concerned about not having a job if he doesn’t win the race, even though as noted, he does not need to work. So to protect a job he doesn’t need, he’s making everyone else he works with pull 60+ hour weeks covering for him. He’s not a good person.
Which brings us to what might be the most disappointing part of the book, at least for me. This is a political book, during a highly political time. To even broach politics is to take a position. In the author’s note, Bocci talks about wanting to write a character “who embraced the need for civil engagement.” Beyond the fact that this is the same gaslighting narrative used by people with immovable positions to try and force people into the dehumanizing position of having a “civil discussion” about their right to exist, this book plain fails to do this.
It pits two rich, white, cis-het men against each other with what boils down to a fairly minor disagreement over economic policy (should government encourage small business or bring big business to town). Even over what are two, not majorly distinct positions that don’t trigger any moral conflict the way issues of police brutality, racism, abortion, etc bring up, this book doesn’t even try at “civil engagement.” One one side we have Cooper, who is universally considered handsome, well dressed, charming, loves old people and kids, is well spoken and nice. On the other side, we have Rogers, who is described as having the aesthetic and personality of a used car salesmen, who engages in blackmail, is running on no policy, and wants to pave over old growth forests to build a Home Depot.
There is no civil discourse in this book. There is no attempt at it. Even using the entirely middle of the road, centrist political positions of both people running, you have Prince Charming and The Devil. I’m not saying this isn’t a possible scenario, obviously, but where the attempt is to show that you CAN disagree politically and have reasonable discussions, at least on legitimate political topics and not people’s humanity, it doesn’t engage with the other side at all.
Still, I hope this book inspires more stories rooted in politics. It’s a critical part of our society, and I think it’s important to capture it in our fiction work.