Happy Black History Month!
I had originally planned on posting this recommendation last week, but because I am a proponent of celebrating romance every day of the year, I figured I’d wait a couple of days and send you all a dose of love after the chocolatey, red-petaled euphoria of Valentine’s Day had fully waned.
If Alisha Rai’s stories of small-town romance propelled me headlong into the genre, then I can credit Alyssa Cole for making me a lifetime disciple. I could recommend any number of her beautifully written stories, all of which feature diverse characters finding fulfilling relationships perfectly tailored to their intricate personalities, but I have to talk about my favorite story of hers, Let It Shine. In this stunning novella, childhood friends Sofie Wallis and Ivan Friedman run into each other after years of separation at a meeting for nonviolent protesters in 1961. Sofie has spent her life adhering to her father’s notion of what a proper Black woman should be and act like, and Ivan’s career as a boxer makes his appearance at a meeting touting nonviolence a bit suspect. As with any good novella, the only thing wrong with this story is that it’s too short, because in Cole’s expert hands, Sofie and Ivan grow back together in a story of resistance, passion, and empowerment.
Second-Chance Romance, Always My First Choice
If you look back through my blog posts, you will find that the romances I tend to love most usually fall underneath the second-chance romance umbrella. This trope involves the leads reuniting at the beginning of the story after years apart. They don’t necessarily have to have a romantic history – they can be enemies, friends, or lovers, or anything in between. The key for second-chance romance is the impact of the separation, and whether two characters can reform their relationship, despite what they have endured in the interim and now endure in the present.
Second-chance romance isn’t easy to pull off, because the author has to convince you that characters have a complex history without relying too heavily on summary and flashbacks. Cole beautifully unfolds Ivan and Sofie’s relationship by imbibing every encounter with a delicate mix of memory and immediate physical chemistry. For example, you learn about Sofie’s African-American upbringing and Ivan’s Jewish heritage, and how the internal biases of both of those communities impact their relationship in the past and the present. Cole infuses this information within the events of the story so seamlessly that it never feels like she’s telling you something outright, but rather immersing you in a complex emotional world. Each scene is wrought with history and attraction, and the confluence of all of them creates such a lush, heady experience for the reader, despite the brevity of the story itself.
The Necessity of Action
The romance genre is the most empowering, feminist genre. Full stop. Nothing any literary critic can say will convince me otherwise. This genre not only allows, but fully embraces men who feel deeply and women who are truly free to do whatever the heck they want. And these days, my favorite romances not only showcase empowered characters who are truly unconfined by the constraints of traditional gender roles and societal expectations, they also remind me of the importance of action, not just intention, in everyday life.
Sofie and Ivan’s reunion is set against the historical backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, but revolution and acting on behalf of your beliefs is almost a character in its own right in Let It Shine. It is present in every moment between Sofie and Ivan, as they decide whether they are rushing into their relationship. It breathes in Sofie’s journey to break free from her buttoned up life, and in Ivan’s realization that doing what’s right cannot wait or be put on hold. Thank you, Alyssa Cole, for writing a romance that ignites passion and questions apathy, and truly is a hallmark of the genre.
Other things that I loved but am not yet coherent about:
- I’m a major Rocky and Creed fan, and Ivan and Sofie are such a huge upgrade on the Rocky/Adrian romance, I cannot even. Also, they have some seriously sexy times in the ring, because WHY NOT. Alyssa Cole knows what we need.
- I love the physicality of this novel. It’s such a brilliant move on Cole’s part to make a boxer part of the nonviolence movement. There’s a beautiful scene where Ivan is teaching Sofie how to move her body to lessen pain, in case of attack at a sit-in, and it’s so fraught with tension that I had to put the book down and just breathe for a second.
- HISTORICAL ROMANCE FTW. The world-building is so well done in this story – it’s truly a masterclass in weaving in just enough details to paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
You really can’t go wrong with any of of Alyssa Cole’s stories, but if you’re looking for the perfect blend of romance and resistance, Let It Shine is your best bet.