An Epic, Slow Burn F/F Romance: The Senator’s Wife by Jen Lyon

the cover of The Senator’s Wife by Jen Lyon

Amazon Affiliate Link

Since reading The Senator’s Wife, I’ve been thinking about what exactly my criteria is for rating a book with five stars. Anne of Green Gables is the first five-star book I ever read; Anne of Avonlea was, unsurprisingly, the second. The three books by Jeanette Winterson that were the subject of my undergraduate thesis—The PassionWritten on the Body, and The PowerBook—are all rated five stars. The only book that I rated five stars in 2023 was Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died. I rated Iris Kelly Doesn’t DateWritten in the Stars, and Count Your Lucky Stars each with a 4.75 on Storygraph.

I’m not defending my five-star rating of The Senator’s Wife. I have to admit, though, that I’m still trying to understand just what it was about Jen Lyon’s novel/series that drew me in so forcefully. That admission notwithstanding, if I could offer some advice, it would be to dive into this 1000+ page odyssey as soon as you can. I read the entire story in three days—it would have taken less time if it weren’t for pesky nuisances like work and sleep.

Alex Grey, a professional soccer player and national team hopeful, is spending some well-deserved R&R with her lifelong friend Caleb on Daufuskie Island. Meanwhile, after a couple of decades spent dealing with her boorish husband, Catharine Cleveland, the titular senator’s wife, has begun making a habit of slipping away from the senator’s plantation mansion to spend a few minutes alone on the boat that she loves so much. As the weather turns unfavorable, Alex sees a small boat struggling against strong winds; when the boat capsizes, she dives in to try and save a life. The life that Alex saves belongs, of course, to Catharine.

This initial set of events takes place no more than ten miles from where I’m currently sitting. Admittedly, that fact doesn’t contribute to this review, but it is kind of neat, don’t you think?

Lyon switches between Alex’s perspective and Catharine’s perspective throughout The Senator’s Wife and the two subsequent novels, Caught Sleeping and Whistleblower. Alex grew up in South Carolina, taken in by extended family and raised conservative and religious. Spending her entire life within the confines of a single state—a small, narrow-minded one at that—Alex dreams of a bigger life. Catharine, meanwhile, has had “a bigger life,” one that has been defined by a bargain made with her father decades ago: marry a man she doesn’t care for and gain control of the family’s shipping company. Though she lives a life of wealth and privilege, managing the company better than her father ever could, Catharine still feels confined and without much agency. When Alex and Caleb bring Catharine back to Senator Cleveland’s mansion on that stormy day, neither Alex nor Catharine could predict how entwined their lives would become.

That’s right! Somebody is going to get a toaster oven, but not before what feels like the slowest of slow burns. To make matters even more engaging, somebody has a “deep, dark secret.” There’s also the matter of an age gap with which to contend. What I’m trying to say is that this book has everything. We start on Daufuskie Island, but end up in Charleston, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, and… well, if Taylor Swift stopped there on the Eras Tour, there’s a good chance Alex and Catharine spend time there as well. Eventually, the story will take an international turn, but that is another story. Except, well, it isn’t. 

Don’t go into The Senator’s Wife expecting a trilogy. Caught Sleeping is not about one of Alex’s teammates or Catharine’s best friend Nathalie: it’s the middle third of Alex and Catharine’s story. Lyon’s trilogy is best thought of as an epic novel, not unlike Shōgun or The Pillars of the Earth. (All three books were released in 2023, suggesting that the trilogy was written as an epic.) The Senator’s Wife begs to be turned into an epic miniseries like The Thorn Birds or Noble House. Except with women who love other women. And some of those women are foul-mouthed Australians. (Hmm, I think I might be figuring out the whole five-star rating thing.)

Another expectation one should have going into this epic is angst. I mean, secrets and slow burns have to be accompanied by some angst, right? Well, imagine the angstiest romance you’ve ever read, double the angst, and that’s about the level you’ll find in The Senator’s Wife. Compared to what Alex and Catharine go through, every obstacle that I’ve seen romance novel characters go through seems trivial. These two women get put through an emotional ringer. To me, though, even though the scope of the story is—once again—epic, it never felt overwrought to me. The lives that these people lead do not resemble my life at all, but the plot and all of its angst never felt so overblown that I was taken out of the moment. 

When it comes to being taken out of the moment, though, there is one more thing that you should know before picking up The Senator’s Wife. Based on the elements of the story that I’ve described above along with a basic knowledge of the romance genre, it shouldn’t be considered a spoiler to mention that the romance of this story happens within the context of an affair. (The title of the novel also kind of gives it away.) If that context bothers you… well, it bothers me too. I held off a bit on starting this book because of how much that bothers me. After Catharine’s first interaction with Senator Cleveland, though, it is clear that he is abusive. That’s an ethical conundrum on which your mileage will certainly vary. For what it’s worth, Lyon does a pretty good job of depicting what it’s like to escape an emotionally abusive marriage. Having lived that experience, I think Lyon might have actually done too good of a job. There were a couple of spots where I had to get up and walk away for a little while.

The Senator’s Wife has a lot to say about what it means to grow up and become a person who isn’t solely defined by who you were as a child, where you grew up, and who raised you. Senator Cleveland and Caleb are prime examples of people who only know one way to live, become confined by that one way, and then try to confine everyone around them to that same small, narrow view of the world. Though Catharine and Alex have already seen the cracks in those narrow worldviews, their discovery of each other helps them break through to finally be part of a larger world. Even if it’s difficult. Even if there are significant risks. Even if there are no guarantees.

If there is one last piece of advice that I could offer, it would be this one: Before diving into The Senator’s Wife, make sure that you hydrate, because there will be tears.

Content warning: cheating/affair, domestic violence, blackmail, revenge porn

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

Censorship, Expression, and Signaling in Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club

the cover of Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Malinda Lo’s novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) has won multiple awards and has been reviewed multiple times at the Lesbrary already, so let’s start this review somewhere different: Last Night at the Telegraph Club has been banned and/or challenged at least 34 times in 14 states. Having done a bit of research and writing about these book challenges, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the people who submit complaints to school boards and file police reports with law enforcement very rarely actually read the books that they are attempting to ban. In the post linked above, Lo provides evidence of just how easy it is to file FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests that reveal all sorts of information about the people who want to ban books that they feel do not fit a certain narrative profile.

This is why you won’t see me write much about YA here—I spend way too much time writing about these issues elsewhere. However, I wanted to write about Last Night at the Telegraph Club because, simply, I hadn’t read it yet. 2023 was not a good year, so why not end it with a book on my TBR pile that I knew would be good? And it certainly was.

One element of YA that is important to watch out for is how it serves two primary sets of readers. The first set is the group of readers whose identities most closely align with the characters and/or the subject matter. For example, in the case of Last Night, adolescents who are Asian American, immigrants, and/or part of the LGBTQ+ community are in this first set of readers (along with potentially any other adolescent from a marginalized community). When we talk about who books are for, this is the set of readers to whom we are usually referring. If I can recognize myself in some facet of Lily’s character, Last Night speaks to me and my experiences. I might, for example, be reminded of the thrill of realizing something important about myself when Lily begins to interact with Kath, or I might recognize the danger that I feel through Lily’s constant need to keep large parts of her life a secret. In other words, the reader’s experience is reflected back to them in the pages of the novel.

The second group of readers is, simply put, everyone else—and this is where we run into trouble. Why should my child, who is nothing like the characters in these books, be subjected to these books? That’s the question that I’ve heard posed so often, either in those exact words or otherwise. Their children, they argue, shouldn’t have to be confronted with what it means to call an Asian American person a term that is meant to describe objects rather than people. Their children shouldn’t be exposed to a point of view that challenges the way the “typical” white person behaves, as they are when Lily is asked if she can speak English or is repeatedly called a “China doll.” Their children, most especially, shouldn’t see “immoral” behavior go unpunished. 

Except these sorts of issues are precisely what adolescents should be reading about because, for many, novels like Last Night provide a window into an experience that isn’t their own. The parents who seek to ban books only want their children reading books that mirror a certain set of experiences, while marginalized adolescents have to look through windows into lives that don’t mirror their own. In truth, all adolescents should read both sorts of books. All adolescents need the books they read to function as windows and mirrors so that they can learn about themselves and about others. (Note: The credit for the windows/mirrors metaphor goes to Rudine Sims Bishop, who advocated for diversity in children’s literature, particularly for Black readers and authors. Here is a great resource for more on this concept.)

Again, I really enjoyed Last Night, and I wanted to say just a bit more about two things that I found particularly delightful: the discussions of butch/femme and signaling. Does anyone remember Genesis from The Real World: Boston? The first time that I ever heard the term “lipstick lesbian” was from her. A couple of years later, I learned more about the concept of “butch” from Jack Halberstam. In 2024, we know that these terms are slippery and have limited utility—perhaps they don’t even have any utility for current adolescents at all. However, for many of us who left adolescence behind long ago, femme and butch were part of the limited ways that we had to describe queerness at something resembling a mainstream level.

Lo uses the historical setting of San Francisco during the Red Scare to explore the femme/butch binary in a way that helps younger readers understand the ways in which previous generations explored queerness, sexual orientation, and gender expression. Again, even if the femme/butch binary doesn’t serve adolescents today, the historical context does because, as we know, where we came from directly influences where we are and where we are going. And, of course, who among us hasn’t at some point felt the same awkwardness and excitement that Lily feels as she is figuring all of these things out over the course of the novel?

This past fall, I taught an undergraduate seminar on young adult literature; in one of the books that we read, several characters provide nonverbal cues to signal their sexuality. The discussion that we had in class about signaling was one of my favorite discussions that we had all semester. I wish I had time to recount more of that discussion; for now, though, just imagine Last Night as a way to juxtapose mid-20th century signaling from what it looks like today. After all, all one has to do today is slap on a pride flag, get an undercut, or quote Steven Universe or The Owl House, and the people who need to know—well, they know. Compare those contemporary signals with the ways in which Lo describes the way her characters dress and wear their hair as well as the way she describes Lily’s reverence as she encounters outward expressions of queerness. 

If you haven’t read Last Night at the Telegraph Club yet, don’t wait any longer! If you have read it already, perhaps it’s time to give it a second read.

Content warning: homophobia, racial slurs, racism

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date Is a Satisfying End to Ashley Herring Blake’s Bright Falls Series

the cover of  iris kelly doesn’t date

Buy this from Bookshop.org with a Lesbrary affiliate link!

First, a confession: I never liked romance novel covers. For the first thirty-five years of my reading life, I had no idea what went on between the covers of romance novels (well, okay, I had some idea), but if it had anything to do with what was on the cover—hard pass. Now, I am aware that some genre purists detest the illustrated cover trend, and I get that. For how many readers, though, has the illustrated cover been a gateway drug to the romance novel? It was for me. And that brings us to Delilah Green, the town of Bright Falls, and their creator, Ashley Herring Blake.  

From the very first chapter of Delilah Green Doesn’t Care (2022), I wanted to spend as much time as possible with Delilah Green, Claire Sutherland, Iris Kelly, Astrid Parker, and anyone else to whom Blake would introduce me. Yes, even Astrid—who, by the way, gives off such extreme Lemon Breeland vibes that I’ve since had to go back and rewatch a few episodes of Hart of Dixie. Blake balances the sibling tension between Delilah and Astrid with the main romance plot between Delilah and Claire, all the while developing the setting of Bright Falls, Oregon. Another confession: I have been trying to escape from coastal Georgia for a while now, hoping to end up in Oregon. If the Bright Falls that Blake wrote about was real, I would have moved there immediately. Delilah needs a GenX friend who can go toe-to-toe with her sarcasm and eyerolls, right?

Imagine my surprise when I discovered what was waiting for me in the sequel, Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail (2022). Blake introduces her readers to a new character, Jordan Everwood, who has arrived from—yes, serendipity and irony are real things, folks—coastal Georgia. (It is less surprising if you know that Herring lives in coastal Georgia. But no less serendipitous.) After a crushing breakup that challenged her sense of self, Jordan finds herself an unlikely match for Astrid. Astrid learns to loosen up (sort of), and everyone in Bright Falls is happy. Almost everyone. Something truly unfortunate happens to Iris Kelly in Astrid Parker, which serves as the setup for the third Bright Falls novel. 

Oh, and the plot of Astrid Parker revolves around an HGTV-esque renovation reality show. If that sort of thing matters to you.

Blake is not the first person to create a charming small town in which romance and hijinks occur. I know I said that I didn’t know what went on within the pages of romance novels, but I’ve seen Hart of Dixie, remember? For what it’s worth, though, I’d take Bright Falls over Bluebell, Virgin River, or even Stars Hollow (yes, Stars Hollow) any day. The best feature of Blake’s Bright Falls series is the way that she examines the trauma that her characters have had to face. Whether it’s the death of a parent, an overbearing mother, a devastating breakup, or a bad reputation, Blake takes her readers through what it means to be wounded by life and by the people in it. Trauma doesn’t just “scar” us; it lives on, at least until it is dealt with. Nothing, and I mean nothing—not even the illustrated covers—gets me more in a romance novel than one character telling another that their trauma is real and then helping them deal with it. 

Iris Kelly doesn’t date because anyone she dates will inevitably let her down. Blake provides us with a catastrophic example of this maxim in Astrid Parker. When we meet up with Iris at the beginning of Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date (2023), she’s done with it all: cheaters and liars, people who think being bisexual means being greedy or hypersexual, and people who are convinced that Iris does not have her life priorities straight. And that is how Iris ends up at Lush, a club in Portland, where she spots her next one-night stand. All is going to plan until the stranger responds to Iris’s seduction technique by vomiting all over her. 

I wonder sometimes if there are people out there who are as forgiving as the characters in romance novels. I’m sure there are, but I have no interest in the world of people who are securely attached. Another thing I’ve learned about what goes on between the covers of romance novels: no one seems to have a secure attachment style. And I am here for it. Because the fantasy (or heightened reality) of people helping each other process their traumas while finding love is one I can wholeheartedly support. 

I almost didn’t write this review because, as I suspected, it was too easy to discuss what has resonated with me in the Bright Falls series rather than actually review Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date. I would argue, though, that those are not two separate things. I felt a lot of sympathy for Iris, but Stevie’s anxiety is something that I have actually felt. (Not in the way that she felt it during her first interaction with Iris, I should clarify.) Stevie is a fawner who is still friends with her ex. She also lets people tell her what she thinks (or should think), and she struggles with who she is on multiple levels. I am much more interested in those issues than I am with the fake dating plot of the novel. As far as fake dating plots go, this one’s pretty good—it involves an extremely queer production of Much Ado about Nothing.

If that sort of thing matters to you.

What I am going to remember about the Bright Falls series is thinking about how it must have felt for Delilah, Jordan, and Stevie to (re)discover a magical place that is a thousand times better than Narnia. (There is a White Witch—it’s Astrid. And Delilah and Iris have some fierce manes. Also, Astrid makes a caramel dark chocolate seven-layer cake, so those Narnia kids can just keep their Turkish Delight to themselves.) I don’t want to leave Bright Falls, and Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date certainly lives up to the first two novels in the series. As a standalone novel, Iris Kelly would still merit a solid four stars. The Bright Falls series, however, is greater than the sum of its parts. Five stars for six people who I would be glad to know in real life.

If I have to, though, I’ll settle for Delilah Green cameos in every single one of Blake’s future novels.

Content warning: manipulation, panic attacks

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

Alexandria Bellefleur Continues to Make Seattle the Romance Capital with The Fiancée Farce

the cover of The Fiancée Farce

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

In a year of reading romance novels, I have learned a lot about the genre. First, and most importantly, I enjoy it so much that I usually read an entire novel within a single twenty-four hour period. Another thing that I have noticed—something that threatens to temper that enjoyment from time to time—is how often romance plots revolve around class differences and wealth. Romance, it turns out, often costs money. Considering one of the main conventions of the romance genre is the grand gesture, that should be no surprise. Most of the time I can overlook this pesky intrusion of reality, but I was less successful in doing so while I was reading Alexandria Bellefleur’s latest, The Fiancée Farce (2023).

Before getting into The Fiancée Farce, I want to talk about Bellefleur’s previous three novels: Written in the Stars (2020), Hang the Moon (2021), and Count Your Lucky Stars (2022). These three Seattle-based novels share a cast of characters who I very much wish were real people with whom I could be friends. As someone who wishes she still had her Rainbow Brite doll, I am partial to Elle, one of the main characters of Written in the Stars. Darcy, the grumpy to Elle’s sunshine, is a great combination of ice and red hair. I could also easily see myself as Annie, the protagonist of Hang the Moon, who has found herself directionless and alone. She comes to visit her best friend Darcy in Seattle and meets Brendon, the man who wants to sweep her off of her feet.

Okay, so the M/F romance in Hang the Moon was definitely my least favorite part of these three novels. My second least favorite part, though, was Brendon’s obsession with grand romantic gestures. The convention of the grand gesture bothers me on some level because I don’t really think that it proves much of anything about one’s feelings for another person. Indeed, to me, it proves access to wealth and/or resources, which is why it should be no surprise that Brendon is the CEO of a matchmaking app company. Now, don’t get me wrong—Bellefleur approaches issues of class much more effectively in Count Your Lucky Stars. And, yes, I know that romances are escapist. Still, give me J.Lo’s “My Love Don’t Cost a Thing” over Richard Gere at the end of Pretty Woman any day.

Another potentially expensive romance trope is the marriage contract trope. While I understand the convention of money changing hands in a fake dating/marriage contract situation, six million dollars is quite a lot of money. That is how much Tansy Adams needs to keep her stepmother from selling her father’s beloved independent bookstore, above which she lives in an apartment filled with memories of her deceased parents. The novel begins with the culmination of a six-month-long deception, the purpose of which is to mollify her overbearing family. According to Tansy, she has been dating a woman named Gemma. Except Gemma isn’t real. Well, that isn’t entirely true—Gemma is real, but she is a romance cover model who Tansy has never met. Well, that also isn’t entirely true—Tansy hadn’t met Gemma until she arrived at her cousin’s wedding. The same wedding where Tansy had just inadvertently caught the bouquet.

The Fiancée Farce exists in the same Seattle as Bellefleur’s previous three novels. If Bellefleur is not on the city of Seattle’s payroll yet, she should be, because I have never seen a better advertisement for the Emerald City than her novels. Of course, the reality of living in Seattle requires a cost-of-living conversation, a conversation that lives at the heart of The Fiancée Farce. Ultimately, the plot of the novel revolves too closely around the exchange of money to capture the whimsy of Bellefleur’s previous three novels. Gemma’s family, the van Dalens, as well as her friends (who have clearly spent some time with Rory Gilmore and Logan Huntzberger in the Life and Death Brigade) too persistently hammer in the trope of immoral wealth. There is also a subplot involving Tucker van Dalen that I could have lived without. We get it—rich people often don’t behave well.

Bellefleur creates a cast of awful family and eccentric friends to show that Gemma van Dalen is not like them. The reader, though, is ready to believe that from her first appearance, not to mention that half the book is from her point of view. If Gemma didn’t have a heart of gold, how could she possibly earn the love of down-to-earth and delightful Tansy? I think the answer to that question is what I have taken away the most from a year of reading romance novels: the delight in reading these novels is that I know what is going to happen, and it makes me happy. The author’s main responsibilities are to create characters who I’d like to meet in real life and to ensure the delight of predictability. Of the four novels by Alexandria Bellefleur that I have read in the past month, The Fiancée Farce is the one that sparked the least delight. Tansy is adorable, and Gemma indeed has charm—but I hope that Bellefleur will dump the rest of the van Dalen family into the Puget Sound in her next novel.

Content Warning: revenge porn

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.