American Love Story is a difficult book for me to grade. It’s the third book in a series on my to-read list. I decided to jump in here, but I don’t recommend following my lead and reading this as a stand-alone. American Love Story has socially-minded heroes, delightful chosen family, and a dollop of politics. Sadly, a frustrating lead left me struggling to persevere through the first half of the book.
Patrice Denis is a Haitian-American professor who moves to Cornell University for his first teaching gig. Patrice claims he was drawn by the presence of his best friend, Caribbean restaurateur Nesto, but it hasn’t escaped his attention that his summertime hookup, Easton, also lives in Ithaca. Easton Archer is a “SVU” assistant District Attorney, and a wealthy man who is friends with everyone Patrice knows. Easton’s been crushing hard on Patrice, and hopes to build on their intense connection now that they’re living in the same town, but Patrice shuts down Easton’s attempts to flirt with him. Patrice writes about racial justice on Twitter and in his research. Is his activism incompatible with dating a prosecutor?
Despite Patrice’s indecision, they keep falling into one another’s orbit at the homes of their mutual friends. When Patrice tells Easton that he’s having trouble finding a permanent place to live, Easton offers a newly renovated apartment in the building he owns. Once they are living in close proximity, it’s harder for both of them to ignore their attraction.
Patrice desires Easton but can’t decide if he’s willing to date him. He repeatedly gives in, lashes out, and runs; I found his indecision exhausting to read and wished he would get out of his own way. I especially disliked Patrice’s ping-ponging self-talk. A selection:
I didn’t know what I was doing with Easton, but I could not deny he was the most beautiful guy I’d ever been with…[kissing]…If I got mixed up with Easton, it would get messy.
[after much rhapsodizing about Easton’s genitals]
Once again, I wished I could just let myself go. Get what we both wanted.
I wasn’t sure what I was doing with Easton. I really didn’t. It seemed like my ability to follow through on boundaries just didn’t work when it came to him…[Easton] laughed, and looked so pleased. And if I was being honest, I felt good too. I wanted to keep that going. Always see Easton smiling…It was starting to become startlingly clear to me that when Easton called, I would have a very hard time not running.
The latter is followed by Patrice telling Easton, “Why can’t I stay away?” and leaving. Again. Dude, NO. Patrice recognizes that he’s being an ass, and hurting Easton in the process, yet this pattern continues almost to the end of the book. By the time Patrice decides he’s all in, I was ready to strangle him. I prefer slow burn love stories; being dumped in the middle of hookup drama wasn’t interesting to me. According to the other Smart Bitches, Patrice and Easton’s backstories, meeting, and sexytimes appear in the earlier books. Reading those might have helped make this story arc feel more satisfying.
The book’s central conflict is whether Patrice’s activism will prevent him from dating Easton. Patrice lays this out early on:
Let’s say I do like him, what am I going to do with that, Nesto? I have literally spent the last ten years of my life studying and writing about how the system that Easton works every day to uphold is weaponized to keep people like me in chains. How do I reconcile that?” I gripped my hands together and pressed them to my chest, my voice strained when I finally spoke. “I mean really, I’m asking, because I have no fucking clue how to do that.
First, I was confused that this issue was just now appearing; Patrice and Easton had clearly been boning before this book. Second, I didn’t see their jobs as inherently in direct conflict, because both academics and prosecutors are part of institutions that perpetuate structural racism, while also providing an opportunity to intervene and alter those systems. I can imagine many potential reasons why a racial justice activist would be skeptical of a relationship with someone aligned with law enforcement. But I wanted the book to narrow in on a specific obstacle to their romance, instead of relying on my imagination. Patrice isn’t concerned with how dating a D.A. will look to others, he doesn’t think he’ll be morally tainted by association (he’s friends with a cop), he doesn’t disagree with criminal punishment (or prefer restorative justice), he believes Easton shares his values, and he approves of his focus on prosecuting sexual predators. For example, early on Patrice thinks, “Even though I had a lot of opinions on the criminal justice system and prosecutors, I knew [Easton] was out there trying to put away the bad guys.” Without more context, Patrice’s inconsistent behavior felt unreasonable. He failed to convince me, a racial justice activist, that their respective jobs were a major compatibility issue.
Honestly, part of my problem with Patrice was that I do not believe tweeting alone makes you an activist. Until I saw Patrice take action, online or IRL, I was annoyed by his assertion that being a sociology professor meant he was too politically pure to date the man he spends all of his time thinking about. Since Patrice’s perspective never dramatically shifts, I didn’t trust the HFN would stick.
This was my second m/m in a row where the heroes lack emotional fluency, and I fully admit that this intensified my annoyance with American Love Story. I lost count of the number of times someone didn’t say what they were feeling (or know what their feelings were). I fall in love with characters through dialogue and want to be seduced by sparkling banter or heart-wrenching confessions. Sometimes the dialogue in American Love Story distracted me from the story with clunkiness. Easton and Patrice flirting by talking about their Air Jordans was particularly boring.
I also disliked when character details and relationships were only obliquely mentioned, or not stated at all. For example, Easton is initially described only as having green eyes and dark brown, almost black hair. I assumed he was a person of color because a) most of the characters were, including most of his friends and b) White characters described by Patrice usually had their race explicitly stated. A quarter into the book Easton mentions his “WASPy” family history. I had to text a friend to confirm that he was White (thanks Bitchery) and that this is clearly explained in earlier books.
I empathized with Patrice as a character: he’s a first generation immigrant trying to navigate a world where he feels like an outsider. Once Patrice opens up about his traumatic background, he includes Easton in his circle of trust, and is a surprisingly supportive partner. Near the end of the book, Patrice was finally able to pinpoint the difficulties of agitating around criminal justice, while being in a relationship with someone with decision-making power in that system. He starts to talk about his and Easton’s class differences, and his fears around it.
Meanwhile, Easton is an adorable squishy puppy who keeps coming back, despite getting hurt. Easton has a lot of baggage from his family’s rejection and pines that he’s not good enough for Patrice, but one of my favorite parts of American Love Story is how Easton leverages his guilt around his privileged background by being an avenging angel for sexual assault survivors. Easton’s parents disapprove of his lowbrow career, and don’t understand being ashamed of having unearned wealth. This drives Easton to use his free education to target abusers, and get justice for survivors, in part by spending most of his non-sleeping, non-sexing hours working on cases. Like Patrice, he feels personally responsible for the terrible things he sees in his work, and feels like his actions are never enough.
Outside of Patrice and Easton’s courtship, the major subplot centers on new police hires who start stopping and terrorizing Black and Latinx men for minor infractions, like driving slightly over the speed limit. This part of the story was compellingly written, and forces both Patrice and Easton to decide how to take a stand within the constraints of their careers. Patrice reassures Easton about the limits of his culpability for the police’s behavior and asks gentle questions. As they grow closer, Easton takes the need to meet Patrice’s expectations seriously, even though Patrice shares very little of his concerns with Easton directly. The tension between their couple-bubble and the oppressive outside world was heartbreaking. I appreciated that the book showcased compassion for characters’ imperfections, and a crooked path to allyship.
Ultimately, Patrice and Easton’s friends were my favorite part of American Love Story. It takes a village to help Patrice fall in love; his friends, mentee, and mom all play supporting roles. Patrice’s loving relationship with Nesto was a highlight and many of my favorite moments of the book were from the two of them affectionately ribbing and unreservedly helping one another. I loved how serious topics were woven into the story without significantly darkening the tone—a tough feat to pull off. The themes of chosen family, acting in ways that match your values, and everyone being deserving of and capable of love, appealed to me.
Starting in the middle of a series is perilous, and some of my difficulties reviewing this probably stemmed from that decision. I liked most of the characters inhabiting this story and have been hungering for the themes of this book, especially assessing the importance of political action against personal attraction. I felt safe in this book from the very first page when Patrice’s locs, spelled correctly, are described. A deep sigh fell out of me as my body relaxed; I can’t overstate the bliss of finishing a romance without embedded microaggressions. I was primed to love every moment of American Love Story, and just didn’t. The stakes in this story—immigration access, racial profiling, police harassment—were very high, and the potential drama of a self-described racial justice activist dating a D.A. was tantalizing.
But the actual romantic conflict was frustratingly small: Can Patrice get over himself and date this guy? His repetitive yes/no response to Easton, and his insistence on a conflict that wasn’t really supported by the story undermined my faith in the romance, which is a shame given how strong and nuanced the other elements of the novel remained. In the end, he does get over himself, but he lost me along the way.