Sunday, February 5, 2023

Entwined Destinies by Elsie B. Washington


ENTWINED DESTINIES was the first traditionally published Black category romance featuring Black characters. I found out about it on a Twitter thread, and immediately set out to buy a copy: something that I found out was not easy to do, as everyone and their grandmother seems eager to add this puppy to their collection. It's highly sought after and very rare, both in the original Dell Candlelight edition under the author's pseudonym, and its one subsequent reprint, under the author's real name, by Indigo Press.


I have the reprint, which was published under the author's real name, Elsie B. Washington. Like the heroine, she was a reporter (and I believe one of the books she actually published in that capacity is listed on Goodreads as well), and it's clear that the author drew on a lot of her own experience for the heroine, since it feels so detailed and grounded. The book is very short, under two hundred pages, and is about a glamorous reporter named Kathy, living the single, jet-setting life in London. When reporting about the oil economy from a made-up African country called Dagombi, she meets the hero, Lloyd Craig, the sneering CEO who could out-Fifty Shades of Grey Christian Grey any day of the week, and probably out-Mommy Issues him, too.

Since it's the 1980s, sneering is foreplay, and he foreplays his way through her entire interview with him before asking her out to dinner. Then he gets mad at her for taking a work call, because HOW DARE SHE. He also gets mad when he sees her at a business lunch with six dudes, and when she rebuffs his sexual assault (then telling her YOU'RE JUST LIKE MY MOTHER). No, literally. Apparently Lloyd has a bone to pick with career women. He thinks they're terrible because his mother was a journalist too, and he hated that she wasn't around to make dinner for him and his father while she was out going to college and reporting. This made her such a bad parent that the court granted his father sole custody when his father filed for divorce, which is obviously all his mother's fault.

Kathy, to her credit, can definitely see the forest for the red flags and thinks, I BET HIS MOTHER'S SIDE OF THE STORY IS DIFFERENT. But she also kind of feels sorry for Lloyd because his little feelings are hurt and also the sneering foreplay was kind of hot. But then after he tries to force himself on her, she feels pretty betrayed. This is where she draws the line, and it is a good line to draw. Lloyd clearly did not watch The Tea Video about Consent. To the book's credit, he does not go through with it, apologizes immediately, sends some apology roses with an apology note, and basically grovels like a man who has just realized that he's spent the last two hundred pages of the book acting like coldly furious glares and pointed insults are a form of courtship. IT'S ABOUT TIME, LLOYD.

If you enjoy those old Harlequin Presents books, you'll probably like this, because it's written in the same style, but from a perspective you never really saw. London is portrayed as very diverse, and I loved all the details the author went into about the city. Kathy also experiences a lot of sexism, which she talks about with frustration (you know, the Mad Men "turn around real slow" / "aww, it's cute when women try on a career like it's a hat" type sexism), but, oddly, not racism. Racism is only vaguely alluded to in the book, like a point at which Kathy and her Jamaican friend sit down and discuss what it's like being African versus being Black and living in England (no details provided, they are just "talking" about it). There's also a movie Kathy watches that is put on by one of her friends set in the West Indies (Trinidad), that gets some criticism from (white) people for not showing "the good sides" of historical Trinidad, and outraged descendants of colonialists whining about the lack of whitewashing of their colonialism is something we still see to this day, so this struck me as both incredibly funny and also sad, because it's a real blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment and probably went over a lot of (white) people's heads at the time but feels incredibly prescient and sadly still relevant today.

ENTWINED DESTINIES reads like a love letter to England first and foremost, and is also pretty feminist in a lot of surprising ways. Kathy's strong friendships with the women in her life, and to one of her male coworkers, are all really healthy and positive. I loved her relationship with her aunt. I liked the descriptions of her career and the hilarious dated references that gave it a sort of quaint charm, like references to switchboards or the "new Agatha Christie book" (I looked it up-- her last one was published in 1976, just four years before this book was). The heroine's Blackness is also somewhat focal to the plot: her father worked for the government as a sort of ambassador-like figure, so Kathy grew up in Africa and that shaped her identity in a way that gives her a sort of quiet pride in her heritage. 

The book does fall short in a couple key ways, though. THE ENDING. Oh my God, I actually flipped pages to see if there was more I was missing (I wasn't). The heroine gets several bomb threats and we never find out who sent them, which gave the book a lack of closure. I was actually kind of hoping it was the evil OW, Miss Sese. Wouldn't it be sort of a grand irony if the foil also had more agency than anyone-- even the heroine-- gave her credit for? There's also a sort of confession at the end but then it fades to black with no real sense of romantic closure. I guess it's an HEA, but barely, because it leaves so many questions unanswered: is Lloyd going to insist on his traditional ideas of a marital household where a woman discards her career aspirations to wait on her family? Does Kathy keep working? I guess the lack of closure keeps this book from making any dated mistakes but it's frustrating.

I also didn't love the hero. Not because of his rapeyness necessarily, since that's par for the course in romances like these, but because we don't really get to know him much as a person except that he's well-spoken in interviews, good at his job, has a ton of money, and apparently kind of a sexist traditionalist. There are little snippets of softness and consideration on his part-- such as the scene when he takes care of her when she's soaked from the rain and then washes and kisses her feet after making her hot tea-- but not a whole lot of tenderness or intimacy between them, otherwise. Given what a jerk he was about her job, I guess I just didn't really see what she saw in him apart from him being hot.

ENTWINED DESTINIES isn't really worth the hype, in my mind, but it was the book that was the first to do a thing, so of course it's easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight and point to examples of how it could have done the thing better when so many other things have followed in its wake. Honestly, I feel like the book deserves another reprint since it was the first Black romance to be published and I think a lot of people would love to-- and should be able to-- read it, and see the book that helped pave the road for more diversity in romance. Definitely a perfect read for someone who loves romance and also wants to celebrate Black History Month, as it embodies both of those things.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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