All words: Tricia Haley
I know what you’re thinking – two historical romance reviews in a row? What has Restricted Reading become in the Year of the Monkey? But what you don’t know (probably) is that late last month a new book was released by the one and only Beverly Jenkins, an author so well-established and beloved that even mainstream media outlets go out of their way to discuss her work. Besides, I wouldn’t dream of denying you exposure to an author whose recent heroines include a 19th century lady pirate. So next time we’ll return to an era of iPhones, electricity, and socially conservative Republicans, but for now, let’s take a few minutes to enjoy a Nevada love story from an era before legalized prostitution and the Thunder from Down Under.
Type: Historical romance, but not the kind with dukes. Or even earls. In fact there doesn’t seem to be anyone with a British accent at all in Forbidden. Which actually makes sense, since it takes place in the western United States in 1870. And honestly, Reconstruction was enough of a shit show without bringing in the English aristocracy.
The couple: Eddy Carmichael is a young Black woman following her dream of moving from Denver to California to open her own restaurant in 1870. Along the way, she encounters one Rhine Fontaine, a wealthy owner of many businesses. Since about 95 percent of romance novel heroes are wealthy, this would be kinda boring. But Rhine is the biracial son of a former slave, and was raised in slavery himself. But since is father was White, his skin is light enough to allow for him to pass as White, which he does as he builds a life as a high-powered businessman in the Nevada town of Virginia City. The decision allows him the social cache to fight for the rights of his Black patrons and friends in a unique way, but disallows him the chance to pursue Eddy romantically. And that, friends, is what English teachers refer to as “conflict.”
Tropes: Jenkins’ story is admittedly a little different, but it’s very much a romance, and as such we can still find our “damsel in distress” trope, and our “disgustingly wealthy hero” trope, and the classic “hero/heroine has to decide whether or not to come clean about something in order to live happily ever after” trope.
The story: Eddy is bound and determined to get away from her life in Denver and open a restaurant. She believes her best shot to do so is in California, so she saves up her money and heads west. She’s a tough woman who knows it’s going to be tough going, but it gets way tougher – excessively tough, one might argue – when a fake priest who offers her a ride through the desert steals her money and leaves her for dead. Incidentally, posing as a priest who helps fake orphans and then leaves a woman for dead after trying to sexually assault her is pretty much as evil as you can get, even in a romance novel. Rhine comes across a nearly dead Eddy, saves her, cares for her, falls in love with her, and starts second-guessing some of his life decisions. Eddy falls in love too, but still keeps her eye on her long-term dreams because she’s an independent woman who wants to pursue a career that she loves (in addition to wanting to be with the man she loves). Is that so much to ask? Maybe. Read onward!
How’s the sex? If you’ve ever doubted whether romance writers are feminists, allow the sex scenes in Forbidden to set you straight. There’s not a ton of sex in this book, but of the sex there is, Eddy is having WAY more than Rhine. Rhine, god bless him, is involved (very involved) every time. But in that 1870s gentlemanly kind of way, he leaves his needs unmet out of chivalry and lack of birth control. And that’s the kind of romantic heroism that trumps firefighters, cowboys, or Navy SEALs any day of the week.
Is this book for you? Have you ever read a Reconstruction era love story? If not, this is a good place to start. Really. One of the very best things about fiction is that it allows us to consider the human experience from perspectives that we can’t through our own lives and lenses. Historical fiction in particular can deploy emotions and experiences that are timeless – in this case jealousy, sacrifice, and love – to connect readers to a time and context that is less relatable. Also, let’s be frank: the population of people we tend to see on romance novel covers (it’s a real lot of White people) don’t always reflect the population of people who experience love. So, Forbidden and books like it might broaden readers’ perspectives, and that’s good for story-telling as a whole.
Social commentary aside, Forbidden is well-written with a keen attention to detail. My only noteworthy criticism is with the balance in the last third or so of the book when all events seem to sit at the same low-level of intensity despite the varying degrees of significance. This is a little spoilery, so look away if you like, but certain events that seem to have been building toward major confrontation turn out to be somewhat anticlimactic, and even a life-threatening situation toward the end of the story comes and goes surprisingly quickly.
Conclusion: Forbidden is a love story in a place in time when we don’t often think that much about romance. Despite some unevenness at the end, Jenkins paints a clear picture of her setting and crafts a high-stakes, engaging story that sits well within it. She also recognizes that some readers might need reminding that White people don’t have a monopoly on romance – even in the 19th century! – and she’s gracious enough that she never makes us feel wildly stupid for needing the reminder.