The Art of Desire
“Despite the magnetic pull of eagerly described physical attraction, there’s never a moment when Alex Walton yields control over her own heart and life.”
Count up the reasons to read this 22-years-later second release of a romantic thriller by Stacey Abrams, writing in 2001 under the name Selena Montgomery: As Abrams pursues and fulfills a role as one of the most powerful and notable in America’s political ranks at the moment, any insight into her process can be intriguing.
Second, and maybe more essential, BIPOC romance thrillers don’t make it to hardcover very often, or to accessible bookstores and shelves—there’s good reason to celebrate this one.
Third, of course, is the suspense that Abrams/Montgomery builds into her fast-paced novel of a brilliant and creative young woman trying to find herself, when everything seems to come too easily and wear out too soon. What could challenge her to the max? Simple: a secret espionage organization run like an athletic network of motivated and patriotic young people, taking a stand against fascism and colonialism on the world stage.
For dedicated romance readers, there is of course a fourth reason: Montgomery dishes up steamy romance with a lyric voice and a great sense of how such powerful attraction can lure two wounded but wonderful people out of their self-centered grief and into committed partnership. (“You love me? After only four weeks?” “I don’t know what took me so long.”)
Zeben, a vicious terrorist in the fictional nation of Jafir, somewhere near the Mediterranean, escapes prison as the book opens, and then the tale flashes directly to one of the people that Zeben tortured recently: Phillip Turman, whose years in captivity robbed him of his new Congressional seat, and who hasn’t yet found his own center, after being “agent and comrade” for the secret group ISA that takes international action. Phillip may be tough and athletic in such efforts, but now he’s due to attend a wedding where he’ll have to confront the woman he thinks of as his only love, who dropped him when he ran for Congress instead of following her game plan to prestige.
Fortunately for Phillip, his boss Atlas—whose offers of more work don’t appeal right now—has a plan to lure him into both an espionage maneuver and possible romance: He’s to do a favor and collect the maid of honor from the airport. This is Alex Walton, a tall and stunning sculptor, painter, and writer, who’s got a very different issue in romance: She never quite falls in love with the men who adore her, so she leaves a trail of broken hearts and blames herself for some missing piece of her ability to love. Romance readers know, of course, that the missing piece must be Phillip. But Alex is clueless, and Phillip’s deep attraction for her doesn’t reassure her that she could find true love, just a stunning sexual connection: “Phillip used his tongue, his lips, his teeth to ravage every part of her mouth, dragging startled moans from her. . . . Lost in the storm, she pulled him to her, settling her legs around him. At every point of contact, heat flared and flamed.”
Don’t be too quick to say “oh, I don’t read romance fiction.” If you miss reading The Art of Desire, you’ll miss gorgeous descriptions of sensuality and beauty coupled with glowing brown skin, deep brown eyes, and thick black hair, an aspect that’s wonderfully refreshing after decades of blue-eyed blond heroines and Corsair-garbed white males. Today’s books of love, lust, and romance need Montgomery’s ambitious and dramatic approach. (Caution for espionage fans: That’s the soft part of the plot here, barely sketched in. Overlook it and take the vibrant relationships ride instead.)
Moreover, despite the magnetic pull of eagerly described physical attraction, there’s never a moment when Alex Walton yields control over her own heart and life. Holding agency, with courage and skill, is as much a part of her as the “bee-stung” lips that Phillip engages. And that, if you went looking for Stacey Abrams—beyond the Selma Montgomery pen name—is a convincing reason to pick up this newly issued hardcover, silence the phone, and indulge in reading a revelatory page-turner.