NPR's Best Books of 2016. It was on this list that I found Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins. A romance novel recommended by NPR? I was definitely going to read it.
Of the many, many romances I've read, I'm pretty sure they've all been written by white women. Minority characters, and black characters specifically, have been friends of the protagonists or absent entirely. Forbidden is a refreshing and surprising change from this rut of my reading.
Eddy was born free to parents who loved her and cared for her deeply. However, they died when Eddy was only twelve, and since then, she's been working her butt off to survive. With a dream of leaving Denver to move to California and starting her own restaurant, Eddy begins making her way West. Out in the desert, Eddy is robbed and left for dead, only to be saved by Rhine Fontaine and his business partner. Rhine brings Eddy to the nearby town of Virginia City, Nevada and saves her life.
Rhine Fontaine was born a slave, on a plantation in Georgia (I'm pretty sure?). His mother was a slave who had been raped by the master of the plantation. Rhine learned early on that he looked white enough to "pass" and enjoy the countless privileges of being white. After the Civil War, Rhine has come West. He's decided to live his life as a white man because of the staggering opportunities it gives him as far as property ownership, potential for making money, and political influence. He reasons that he can help his race much more as a white man than he would be able to as a Black man.
As Eddy settles into life in Virginia City as a cook for a local boarding house, she finds an undeniable attraction building between her and Rhine. However, Rhine is completely off limits. Not only is he engaged, but their relationship would be against the law. The only thing she could ever be to him is a hidden mistress.
In many ways, Forbidden is full of the many tropes of historical romance novels. Eddy finds herself often in perilous, and somewhat unrealistic situations, so she can be rescued by Rhine. But there were also many things I really enjoyed. As I mentioned earlier, this is the first romance novel I've read that's centered around Black characters. I found that Jenkins did a very good job at interweaving a vibrant Black community and the politics of the time into her story. Showing the contrast of how Rhine is treated as a rich white man and a Black man is particularly stark.
I also appreciated that Eddy and Rhine were polite, honest, and straightforward with each other. Eddy didn't waste any time in telling Rhine that she could feel something between them but it wouldn't work because he was engaged and white. It was refreshing, and I genuinely liked both characters. Their perceived difference in races was a true barrier to their relationship. I was a little disappointed in the end. I felt that the climax of the story should have dealt with the racial issues a little more. Instead, Jenkins has a woman act out of insane jealousy in a way that had me shaking my head in disbelief. It took me out of the story. I also felt bad that the poor Chinese driver lost his life with so little interest.
I appreciate how well Jenkins described the Black experience in the American West after the Civil War, and kept a thriving romance between her hero and heroine at the same time. However, some of the tropes Jenkins used felt a little stale and forced. I've read some fantastic romance novels this year, and Forbidden does not quite rise up to my favorites. But I enjoyed it and I'm glad I read it.