Must we accommodate political differences in our closest relationships? Or should politics and doing what’s right trump love and happiness?
These are the questions at the heart of the extraordinary – and controversial – debut novel Everything’s Fine by Cecilia Rabess, a Black woman and former associate at Goldman Sachs.
Jess, a young, progressive Black woman, and Josh, a white conservative, meet at university – where their political views make them natural opponents, if not enemies. But the book begins as their paths cross again: Jess becomes an investment analyst at Goldman Sachs, where Josh’s career is already taking off.
Despite their differences, a friendship blooms. Chemistry crackles and they fall in love. But is love enough?
Review: Everything’s Fine – Celia Rabess (Picador)
Even before its release, the book was “review bombed” on the popular reading website Goodreads. People who hadn’t read the book objected morally to its very premise, hitting it with one-star reviews.
Some of them were explicit that they had not – and would not – read the book: “i didnt and will not even read this,” began one such reviewer. Many insisted the book’s concept was unacceptable: “i haven’t read this book nor do I plan to but having read the synopsis, I’m rating it 1-star.” Some argued it should never have been published. Referring to the popular “enemies to lovers” romance trope, one wrote: “it’s not enemies to lovers if you use it to excuse racists”.
At the time of writing, five-star reviews of Everything’s Fine outnumber one-star reviews by more than three-to-one. But writers and publishers increasingly worry review-bombing of this sort is becoming an all-too-common phenomenon.
Can love and politics mix?
Rabess’s topical book, set in 2016, was inspired by a 2018 New York magazine article, “Donald Trump Is Destroying My Marriage”, which traced the challenging influence of newfound political identities and activism on relationships.
Trump’s political trajectory hangs like a Sword of Damocles over Rabess’s novel –and her protagonists’ fragile union. The reader knows (but the characters don’t) how it will play out: Trump inexorably building momentum, winning the Republican nomination and ultimately the 2016 election.
As race and politics come to the cultural forefront, ideological fault lines threaten to tear Jess and Josh apart.
Rabess’s characters are cleverly crafted to explore the hard questions of love and politics. In many ways, Jess and Josh seem deserving of a romantic “happily ever after” ending. They love each other deeply. There is genuine passion between them. Each cares for the other. Both sacrifice and take risks for the other. And there is respect, too – both are fiercely intelligent in ways their partner sees and admires.
Yet powerful barriers lie between them. Their politics clash sharply. To be sure, neither is extreme in their political stance. Both acknowledge compromise can be appropriate in some cases: Josh can see the attraction in affirmative action and Jess has worries about rent control.
Yet the ideological divide between progressive Jess and conservative Josh is enormous – and baked into their identities. They live in different worlds, experiencing and interpreting events in incompatible ways.
For Jess, race and racism colour her everyday life and work, presenting barriers she must continually navigate and responsibilities she must shoulder. Josh lives in a world of privilege offered by his race, his gender, his education and his perfect ideological fit with the capitalist system that frames his rising success.
While there are times Josh risks his career to stand up for Jess, he struggles to make sense of her experience. This routinely blocks him from empathising with – and emotionally supporting – the woman he loves.
Race, class, gender, politics
While issues of race and politics build the story’s central point of tension, Rabess enriches the larger picture with intriguing questions of class, wealth, education and gender.
As a young Black woman working in finance, Jess comes from a different social and economic class from her colleagues and supervisors. When she is treated unfairly and dismissively in work and life, she finds herself in the unenviable position of not knowing why. Is the workplace racist? Is it sexist? Is it manifesting class-based or cultural bigotry? Or is it just a toxic workplace?
Or – more confounding again – is her perceived hard treatment a product of her own insecurities? Or something else entirely? When Jess’s workmates steal her computer mouse, is she being harassed? Or it is a strange rite of passage acknowledging she’s reached the level where she, like her workmates, no longer needs the device, and can more effectively control her system using her keypad?
Then there is the matter of Jess’s friends. Here the book’s exploration of politics and relationships takes a subtle turn. Jess’s closest friends, the “Wine Girls”, are good friends in many ways. They care for Jess and are always there to support her. They provide levity and release when her life is otherwise bleak and difficult. They share her views on politics and race.
Yet the class divide between Jess and her friends can be as profound as the political gap between Jess and Josh. Her friends, who come from wealth, are at times shockingly blind to her very different relationship with money.
And they expect Jess to be in lockstep with their political and cultural views. Here, just as in her love life, Jess must wrestle with how far she should go along to get along. When she does speak up, the Wine Girls are quick to disparage her concerns, even suggesting her relationship with Josh has compromised her.
Not a typical romance
The pre-publication controversy around the book and author came from two distinct fronts.
The book’s early publicity presented it as a steamy romance. Jess and Josh’s tale is unquestionably a love story. It involves many well-crafted romantic devices: there is the thrill of the “chase”, the raw sexual heat of their physical relationship, and the much-loved enemies-to-lovers hook.
But the book doesn’t ultimately fit the romance genre. Josh is not a typical romantic hero. His flaws are deep, and the chasm between him and Jess speaks to their very identities. They are soul-crossed as much as star-crossed lovers. And while the endings of genre romances are unambiguous “happily-ever-afters” (or, HEAs), the deep-seated complications of Everything’s Fine do not resolve quite so neatly.
The second controversy speaks directly to the book’s theme. In recent years, disagreements about politics and race have penetrated not just into social life, but into relationships between friends, lovers and life partners.
It was perhaps inevitable that a book explicitly exploring whether “sometimes it’s better to be happy than right” would attract heated critique – and even charges of racism.
The two controversies are perhaps interrelated. A pure romance, in which love conquers all, between a conservative white man and a progressive Black woman might struggle to do justice to the struggle at the centre of the book.
Instead, Everything’s Fine – as its ironic title suggests – fully engages with the complexities of connection when political differences prevent the lovers from seeing, empathising with, and supporting each other’s challenges.
The reader is forced to wonder not only if the two will end up together, but whether they should.
Love in a polarised world
So is a difference in politics a genuinely good reason for lovers to part? It’s possible to imagine very different answers, coming from different philosophical perspectives on our present cultural moment.
You might answer “yes” if you elevate the importance of political identity.
Sometimes people find out who they truly are through engaging with new ideas and political movements. They can awaken to oppressive and unsettling facts that were previously invisible to them. They acquire the confidence to live with integrity, no longer compromising or staying quiet.
People may decide they need to protest or be angry more often – and that might mean a relationship changes. But people in relationships change all the time. And sometimes it is right – and liberating – for a relationship to be left behind.
On the other hand, you might say “no” if you worry about intimate relationships reflecting the corrosion of politics in the wider world. Too often, our politics are beset by polarisation and tribalism. We’re divided by extreme positions, intolerance and contempt of difference – and by the kind of moral grandstanding that makes us unable to listen to, or compromise with, those who think differently.
As a result, our sociopolitical differences translate as angry toxicity on our social media and television screens. It’s little wonder this toxicity bleeds into how we manage our personal lives, with all their inevitable differences and compromises.
The true answer may be more complex than a simple yes or no. Myriad different qualities make up a functioning relationship: love, trust, care, respect, passion, commitment, chemistry, understanding, empathy, shared values. No two relationships will be alike in how these elements are mixed and valued.
There is simply no one-size-fits-all answer to whether love should triumph across political differences.
Love and argument
As a fiction writer who’s also written a love story (but not a romance), I admired Rabess’s ability to explore so many complex areas in a single story. One highlight was the beautiful character of Jess’ father and his role in shaping and supporting her.
But as a philosopher who researches the ethics of argument, I was particularly intrigued by the role argument played in the two characters’ unfolding relationship. It was through argument the characters were first drawn to one another. A university discussion aroused Josh’s interest in Jess and his (perceptive) sense that she wasn’t in ideological lockstep with her friends.
In some ways, Josh and Jess should be well-placed to think through their political differences together. They are smart and articulate. They care passionately about each other and respect each other’s intelligence. College-educated, they are well-informed on key issues.
Yet throughout the book, they seem incapable of genuinely talking through each other’s reasoning. They never try to tease out exactly where their disagreements lie, or where they might find some agreement. They routinely talk past each other and rarely take the time to understand the other’s reasoning.
Both openly disparage the other’s political thinking. Josh complains, without evidence, that Jess’s published research backing up her claims of racism in Trump’s rise is selective and reductive. Jess is little better. “So you read a research paper and now you’re not racist?” she asks mockingly, when Josh tries to explain his changed position on affirmative action.
This observation isn’t a critique of the book. Indeed, it’s probably an all-too-accurate reflection of arguments today about values and politics: poor, divisive and unconstructive. People argue to assert positions and defend identities, rather than to understand alternative perspectives and think things through together.
However, for this reader at least, the sense that these two lovers were incapable of staying with the other in their disagreements and of understanding and changing with them – with all the courage, patience and emotional strength that requires – made me wonder about their ability to make it work.
Perhaps the ultimate tragedy besetting the two lovers was not the political chasm between them, but that they were so poorly equipped to bridge it.