In addition to Catherine’s review of Hearts on Hold, we also received this lovely review from Carole B.
Carole is a Jamaican immigrant, a lover of politics and popular culture, a Tar Heel by way of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism, and a die hard, unrepentant bookworm. She teaches, researches and writes about media and society, politics, and public opinion. She’s most interested in how gender, race and sexual identity shape how we see, navigate and live in the world.
Her upcoming book The Politics of Interracial Romance in American Film, is a comprehensive analysis of the representation, reception and social and political significance of Black-White romantic narratives in American film.
Having more multicultural representation in romance is not the same as having better, more inclusive representation. I’m inordinately happy to report that Charish Reid’s Hearts on Hold is the latter, a complex interracial romance rendered with authenticity, insight and humor. I enjoyed reading this book. A lot. Both main characters are great— interesting, specific and very human.
Dr. Victoria Reese is a lovely and ambitious, but guarded African American Assistant professor of English literature at an elite university outside Chicago. John Donovan is a well-built and well-read local hero, a six-foot, five-inch Viking of a man in charge of children’s literature (aww) at the public library. The two get to know each other as they collaborate on a joint internship program Victoria is proposing between their two institutions.
Sparks fly when they meet; there’s chemistry and sexy book banter. They’re both attractive people, but they’re also bonding over their mutual love of books, young people, and the Dewey decimal system. John looks up Vicky’s profile prior to the meeting and finds that she has a library book long overdue, a historical romance titled For the Duke’s Convenience. He interprets this rather astutely as a sign of her romantic and playful side that of course isn’t necessarily immediately obvious in their professional setting. When he makes an overture she initially, somewhat reluctantly, demurs:
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to mix business and pleasure,” she lied.
So being with me would be a pleasure?” he asked. “Because it’s hard to tell. You’re a bit thorny.”
Horny, is more like it. While his frankness was a bit unsettling, the hunger in John’s eyes made her feel things she hadn’t felt since…well, reading For the Duke’s Convenience. “I… I don’t think, I didn’t mean it like that,” she stammered.
They’re role playing here to some extent. She’s haughty. He’s naughty. Or, to put it in historical romance terms, she’s the bluestocking and he’s the (fake) rake, so of course she’s drawn to him. It’s a turn-on for them both:
“I don’t usually engage in sordid affairs,” he whispered. “But I’m painfully curious about a well-organized, extremely professional woman who’s so buttoned-up that she might pass out from suffocation.” So he can hear my labored breathing. “I want to know why she’s in love with a rakish duke. He is a rake, right?”
“Pretty much,” she said with a shaky voice. “He’s reformed by the end of the book though.”
Despite her initial reservations, Vicky and John begin what he cheekily calls a “sordid affair” in tribute to the historical romance of which Vicky is so fond. Except it’s not sordid at all. It’s a tightly managed, sex-only, time-limited arrangement, because that’s all Vicky thinks she can manage right now. And it’s really quite sweet, even at its most heated, as in this section, which is narrated from John’s POV:
He gave himself over to the rolling wave of sensations. Stars bursting behind the dark veil of his eyelids, the sound of his heart pounding in his ears, his lover’s quivering damp thighs… John felt and saw it all. He fell into her arms, burying himself in her hold and hesitant to break their connection. He wanted to stay there, inside her, for the rest of his life. John belonged to her now.
What’s especially lovely about that scene is that we get a peek into the emotional depth that’s attached to their physical connection from the guy’s perspective. How often do we see a man losing emotional control and falling into the woman’s arms? It’s not that John lacks the impulse to possess her. We are inside his head, and there she belongs to him. As Reid writes, “the primitive idea that Victoria could be made only for him to pleasure pushed him over the edge.” But he gives himself over to her just as much without protest or crisis. He makes the first overture, but she sets the terms of their engagement.
This is one of several less than common features that I appreciated. The secondary relationships are another. This semi-prickly, perfectionist heroine has close friends who are level-headed, realistic sounding boards, unafraid to provide her with honest feedback about her choices. The responsibility of candor and perspective is built into the fabric of their friendship. Vicky struggles with anxiety and that supportive found family plays an important role in how she copes.
What’s even more unusual is that we also get to see similar relationships, interactions, and vulnerabilities in the male love interest’s life as well. John has a best friend and family members he’s close to and the emotional intelligence to show for it. That’s one of the many reasons they work as a couple and why I like this book a lot.
In fact, John’s relationship with his family plays a pivotal role in the romance. John’s stepmother, stepsister and his niece, Becca, are African American, and that connection brings the couple closer together. Becca is staying with John while her mom is overseas on an extended project. She’s at that precarious pre-teen stage and struggling socially in her very elite, very white private school. John and Vicky’s interactions with her provide some of the sweetest and least expected parts of the story. Their relationship reaches a new level when Vicky comes to the niece’s defense in a crisis. Vicky gets to see how John cares for his niece, and John gets a little closer to understanding Vicky’s life experience has been touched by race. The incident is a timely dramatization of the reality that Black girls are disciplined more harshly in school compared to their White peers.
That’s only one aspect of Becca’s role in the story, however. She also adds a lot of levity and a caretaking dimension to John’s character, and Becca also gets her own HEA when she finds her own found family/girl gang at her school (their “patron saint” is Alanis Morissette). This is typical of Reid: serious subject matter is leavened by humor.
John’s family situation crystallizes a new trope that seems to be emerging in contemporary narratives. Call it “Hot White bae with Black family ties”, and I’d say it’s semi-officially a thing in romance novels with a Black female lead. Done right it signals that the love interest is down. That he can understand the heroine’s struggles, that he’s more likely to be trustworthy (as opposed to being the secret Klansman or racial fetishist of some Black women’s fears), and that their families will potentially mesh.
In addition to Hearts on Hold, the hot White bae with Black family trope appears in:
- Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Rafe: Buff Male Nanny (2019)– Rafe’s stepmom and extended family are Black.
- Xeni (2019)– also by Rebekah Weatherspoon. Mason’s sister-in-law is Black and he was very close with Xeni’s aunt (that’s how/why they meet).
- D.A. Young’s Men of Whiskey Row series (2015-2019)– the series centers on three brothers who are essentially raised by their mom’s best friend, a Black woman, after her death.
- For another variation on this theme, in Everything’s Better With Lisa (2019) by African American author Lucy Eden, the heroine is Latina rather than black, the hero is White, his adopted family is Black, and he too is especially close to his parents and sister.
In addition to reflecting demographic and cultural trends and smart marketing– multiculturalism is big business— if done well, giving the White love interest in an interracial romance a multiracial family is more interesting and impactful than a Black best friend because it’s less common and more central to the love interest’s identity. It doesn’t erase White male privilege, and that’s important to contend with in the text, but especially in the Age of Trump, when two thirds of White men support an effectively White supremacist president and cross-cultural comity seems out of reach, the multiracial background might act as a symbolic shortcut to make their connection more accessible. It speaks to upbringing, learned values, cultural understanding. That is especially true here.
Hearts on Hold also does a great job of using the race and gender-related political melodrama of academia as a backdrop and a driver of the plot. Vicky is one of very few Black faculty at a prestigious, predominantly White institution and the big and little aggressions she encounters there on a daily basis contribute to her anxiety. There’s an authenticity to the rendering. As a Black academic who’s worked exclusively in similar environments, I can attest that these issues are accurately portrayed. As a reader, I just appreciate the specificity and richness of detail in character and world-building. These are people I like living in spaces I recognize, and I love how they get to know each other.
Hearts on Hold is distinguished by its secondary characters and sophisticated portrayal of the social context in which the courtship takes place. Between John’s family dynamics and Vicky’s teaching and her situation at work, Reid delivers a more thoughtful, insightful exploration of contemporary racial dynamics than readers get in most American fiction in general, not just novels in the romance genre.
Ultimately though, what made me love this story is that John and Vicky’s relationship is as sweet, sexy and deeply romantic as it is complex. These are rich, multi-dimensional characters with incendiary chemistry and a hell of a lot in common intellectually and emotionally, where it matters. I highly recommend.