|In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I am a lifelong, dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat. So when I started Ms. Shay’s latest novel, a romance between a Democratic do-gooder heroine and a Republican conservative attorney, I knew I’d have a hard time rooting for a happily-ever-after. But somehow Shay makes it work. This star-crossed love story has passion, intensity and likeable characters. Even the hero won me over, much to my astonishment.
Eleven years ago, Bailey O’Neil spent a year in prison for harboring a gang member who had committed a violent crime. The prosecutor for the case, Clay Wainwright, wasn’t surprised to hear the jury recommend a light sentence for the woman who had worked miracles getting kids to leave behind their violent gang lives. But Clay believes in a zero-tolerance anti-crime policy, and in his view Bailey was well-intentioned but severely misguided. Now Clay is an ambitious Senator who is still frustrated by Bailey’s continued insistence that arresting gang members isn’t as effective as working with them to make them reform. The two clash frequently in the media, but have little personal contact. When both Bailey and Clay are appointed by New York’s Governor to serve on a task force on appropriations for youth programs, sparks fly in more ways than one.
Although the two don’t see eye to eye on their core issues, they are extremely attracted to each other. Bailey may be supporting the election campaign of Clay’s opponent, but she enjoys talking to Clay and finds him to be surprisingly honorable and charming. Clay thinks Bailey is needlessly putting herself in danger but he admires her courage and envies the close relationship she has with her four older brothers and her five-year-old son. The two find themselves conducting a passionate, secret affair, but there are too many obstacles in their way to consider it anything more than a temporary physical fling. Bailey’s family has never forgiven Clay for his role in putting Bailey behind bars, and single mother, part-time bartender Bailey doesn’t fit into Clay’s high society blue-blood political world. And if her true identity as the “Street Angel” who communicates with gang members is ever revealed through her relationship with Clay, her very life could be in danger.
Shay’s novels are earnest and a bit naive but that’s what makes them such great escape reads. She makes the reader feel the forbidden attraction between Bailey and Clay from their first encounter, and the clandestine nature of their affair only increases the tension. Both characters are eminently likeable, and Clay lacks that martyr-like self-sacrifice that undermined the heroes in Shay’s previous novel, Nothing More to Lose. Bailey is caring and dedicated but no wimpy pushover. She has a personal reason for wanting to help gang members, but she doesn’t wallow in it.
The author sheds light on a difficult societal problem and provides two distinct perspectives about how to address it for those who like a little realism with their escapism. Her attempts to replicate genuine gang lingo is only slightly stilted; she’s obviously done her homework, even if she can’t quite pull off the street language. She creates several engaging subplots with well-developed secondary characters, most notably Clay’s efforts to repair the damaged relationship with his college-aged son who is attending liberal Bard College.
Given their radically different viewpoints, I was worried that Shay would cop out and soften Bailey too much in order to keep her with Clay. But if she becomes a little more conservative, Clay becomes a little more liberal by the end of the book, and the epilogue shows that they’re both fighting the good fight in their own way. You may have to check your cynicism at the door to accept a novel that features politicians who care about their constituents, not just their re-election coffers, and one in which no one has ever heard of big business lobbyists, but if you can suspend your disbelief for 350 pages you’ll be rewarded with a powerful love story.