At Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig writes about Mad Max: Fury Road and Game of Thrones. “So, two very popular storyworlds. Two portrayals of a world where women hold dubious power and are seen as ‘things.’ One of these is roundly criticized for it. One of them is roundly celebrated for it. Game of Thrones catches hell for its portrayal of women and this subject. Mad Max is wreathed in a garland of bike chains and hubcabs for it. What, then, is the difference? Let’s try to suss it out.”
Posted June 5, 2014
By some strange quirk of timing and location, I am currently involved in or gearing up for three different elections at once. On the federal front it’s just a by-election to fill a recently vacated seat: it is the least visible and strident of the three. The provincial election is in full swing, loud and messy. There are canvassers at the door every day, and the radio is so full of political ads that I’m forced to switch stations every second song. As for our municipal election… frankly, it’s a relief. We’re only in the lead-up period now, and no doubt the actual campaigns will be as annoying as any other, but getting rid of the most embarrassing mayor in the world will a be a true civic pleasure.
I’ve done a lot of reading in the past couple weeks, trying to get past the boasting and blaming of campaign culture to really get a gauge on candidates and their positions. Consequently I’ve also done a lot of other reading in order to recover from that process. Romances can be good for that. Funnily enough, because modern Romances touch on every aspect of modern life, they can also be about politics, or politicians, or even the elections process. Ha. Talk about timing.
[Please note: all of the books mentioned below are set in the USA. While we have similar governmental styles, they’re not exactly the same. I wasn’t intending to highlight US electoral practice, but that’s how it turned out. Canadian Romance writers: you have your assignment.]
Jayne Ann Krentz’s Hidden Talents is the story of Serenity Makepeace and Caleb Ventress. In order to save her odd and tiny little town from extinction, Serenity is determined to start a mail-order business. Caleb is the business consultant she hires to streamline the process. The two are attracted to one another but things keep getting in the way, like blackmail, long-hidden family secrets, a dangerously unhinged stalker. You know, the usual. It takes both Serenity’s optimism and Caleb’s knack for cutting a deal to get through. In doing so they manage to uncover the truths about their pasts and to create a future for themselves and the whole town. It’s a charming read, and it finishes with Caleb becoming mayor. He didn’t campaign for the job; in fact, he wasn’t technically elected. But the town needs his expertise, his ability to handle the details, so they give him with the job.
It’s not a major plot point — in fact, it works mostly as an epilogic function — but I like that bit. It offers a glimpse into what the process can be: the fulfilment of a civic need. The town lacked something, and Caleb provided it. There wasn’t a change in social position, or even in salary: he just took on the work in order to make things run smoothly. Civil service at its most basic.
Welcome to Temptation, by Jennifer Crusie, is also features a small town and a mayor, but it’s a completely different kind of story. Sophie Dempsey may come from a family of con artists, but she vastly prefers her quiet life as as a wedding videographer. As a favour to her younger sister, she travels to Temptation, Ohio to film a movie. There she meets Mayor Phineas Tucker, who would really rather just run his bookstore and get out from under the weight of his family history. Zaniness ensues, in the form of blackmail, adultery, and murder. But if Sophie and Phin learn to hold on to one another, they just might get through.
Municipal governance is much more central to Crusie’s novel than to Krentz’s. There are boring meetings; campaign ads; impassioned speeches; miles of mind-numbing by-laws; people using public time to pay off personal offences… pretty much everything you’d expect from a governing council of a small town. With the character of Phin Crusie also addresses the issue of privilege in politics, and the consequences of taking a job you have no desire to do. If only all mayors would learn that lesson.
In All The Possibilities, Nora Roberts takes the politics up to the federal level. Shelby Campbell is a talented potter living in Washington D.C. She was raised in the political arena and is intimately familiar with both the process and its possible outcomes; her father, a senator, was assassinated when she was young. Shelby has no desire to once again step into the limelight of the public life. Which only becomes problematic when she meets Alan MacGregor. Because Alan, eldest son of the MacGregor clan, is a senator, and he’s beginning to cast his eye on the White House. He’s everything Shelby has always wanted to avoid. But this time, she wants to get closer.
The book is too short to go into much detail, but Roberts manages to capture some of the pitfalls of that kind of political life: the complete lack of privacy; the playing out of all your dreams — or nightmares — in full public view; the rare but real physical danger. It takes a big love to make that kind of sacrifice worthwhile, but Shelby manages to rise to the occasion.
First Lady, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, tackles the complexity of that sacrifice in more detail. Cornelia Case has spent her life on Capitol Hill. Her father is a former Vice-President. Her husband was President until his untimely death. But even that tragedy doesn’t free Nealy from the demands and pressures of the White House. That is, not until she makes a daring escape.
She ends up meeting, and eventually travelling with, Mat Jorik, who is driving two orphaned children across the country. Intelligent, tough, and energetic, he is everything Nealy didn’t know she was looking for. She helps him smooth down some of his jagged edges, and make room in his life for the two kids in his care. But Mat is a reporter, and when he realizes he’s travelling with the biggest story in the world, things get intense.
First Lady came out in 2000: by 2014 standards, the invasion of privacy angle seems almost quaint. But the unrelenting tension of Nealy’s life remains the same. As does her need for a sincere connection, one that makes all the rest of it worthwhile. She just needed to leave the fishbowl confines of the political life to find it. (By the way, the next time Nealy ends up in the White House, she’s sitting in the Oval Office. Booyah.)
Providing that sense of connection is what Romance novels do. But the stories listed here also provide something else: the reminder that political office carries a very real responsibility. It is a duty owed outward to the public, rather than inward from it. That’s not a platform, of course. But it’s a good place to start.
Chris Szego really hopes you’ll vote.