Chancing Faith, a contemporary romance by Empi Baryeh, is set in a Ghanaian advertising milieu (Black Opal Books paperback, 2012). The last time I enjoyed reading an office romance was in 2005: Jane Porter’s The Secretary’s Seduction, a light-hearted and winsome, old-fashioned Cinderella fairytale (easily the least moody Harlequin Presents I have ever read). Ghanaian author Empi Baryeh’s romance is rooted in a more recognisable world1. including a realistically depicted corporate environment and a hero and heroine with concrete career abilities and visions, but it possesses that same, unexpected quality of tenderness that arises from caring and good-natured protagonists who sincerely like each other.
In order to complete the requirements of her Chartered Marketing Certification course Naaki Faith Tabika applies for an internship at MIA, a leading but corruption-tarnished Accra advertising agency. Unknown to the employees, MIA is facing a disadvantageous merger with an international marketing company in which Thane Aleksander, an account executive flown in from the USA to audit the agency and oversee the restructuring, is hoping to make partner.
Career-driven Naaki worries that a relationship would trap her into the traditional female role of home-making, and Thane realises the limited duration of his stay in Ghana would make a committed relationship unfeasible even if his heart was not smarting from a previous breakup. How much distance can an office romance bridge?
The author takes the reader behind the scenes of the operations of an advertising agency, the principal setting of Chancing Faith, about which she seems knowledgeable. Both Naaki and Thane are serious about their work and ably demonstrate their competence. So far so good. My problem was that their interactions quickly cross into what would be considered inappropriate boss/subordinate behaviour in the workplaces I have known, murky even when they take it outside the office. In the back of my mind a lingering sense of unease flashed “HR violation” more than once. This is something of which the hero and heroine, too, seem aware but irrationally permit themselves to indulge in at every turn anyway. In a romance, unlike in the real world, I can, on one level, accept this very sweet couple’s head-over-heels infatuation as cute, partly due to their non-exploitative personalities, partly because (end spoiler) they end up as equal business partners. Nevertheless, it is an ethically troublesome scenario that strengthens my reluctance to try more office romances. Having said this, it is only fair to point out that in spite of the sensual type of romance implied by the cover the physical relationship is actually kept within bounds that permit only one love scene, close to the end. Instead the couple’s developing attraction is explored through companionship and emotional and physical yearning.
I found both Naaki and Thane very likeable. Both are warmhearted and unjudgmental individuals, yet firm and capable in their professional roles. A beta hero in an alpha suit, Thane came more convincingly alive for me due to his better articulated and animated point of view, which includes a slight but amusing touch of self-deprecating humour. At first he seems the stereotypical hero left scarred by a toxic relationship and vowing to avoid serious involvement with another woman, but this trust issue is quickly ditched in a pattern that becomes familiar throughout a story that seems lost about what to do with points of conflict. If a holiday from angst-ridden heroes sounds good, though, Thane fits the bill. As a bonus, he is a sweetheart.
My reaction to any given romance is more strongly bound to the portrayal of the heroine, however, and I came away a bit dissatisfied by what was left out here. Naaki is a lovely character with some truly positive, proactive attributes but her voice and arc are conveyed with a limpness that prevents the story from maximising on her potential as a heroine. This may be due to the book’s main flaw, one of technique: low tension.
The writing of Chancing Faith is clean, unfussy, and unforced, and the simple, linear storyline unfolds smoothly if slightly repetitively with lots of minutiae filling in the space left by the absence of a strong, central conflict. Consequently, the (minimal) plot sags and the pacing plods; emotional highs and lows become muted. Ironically, plenty of story is compressed into the final twenty pages. That is where the plot lies that could have injected the missing zing and snap into the anaemic main body of the narrative. As written, neither cultural divergence nor the conflict inherent in both the allegedly controversial terms of the merger and in the touted corruption are mined for their potential to deepen character complexity or generate friction.
Another missed opportunity: the former love interests, cardboards who are, furthermore, used stereotypically. In the case of Naaki’s ex-boyfriend the gravity of the path the author chooses to take is underplayed, doing both the characters involved as well as the narrative a disfavour not least by, for example, “resolving” extreme chauvinism with alpha machismo; the subtext in this climaxing scene contradicts the book’s message of female empowerment by rendering the heroine impotent to influence the situation as her welfare is placed entirely at the mercy of the physical acts of men. Unfortunately, too, when the actual moment of deepest despair arrives, the trial is not only one-sided and extremely shortlived but also so artificial as to be meaningless. It is symptomatic of the author’s struggling grasp of conflict that she is forced to lobotomise two previously intelligent characters to manufacture a dramatic culmination.
Romance readers who feel a small dose of setting description goes a long way should be pleased to note that location details are applied with a light touch. With one or two exceptions Ghana and Accra are a barely-there presence, a subtle but natural fragrance that refreshes like the lemongrass from Naaki’s vegetable garden. Thane’s preoccupation with work means that he barely notices his foreign surroundings but he pays attention and adapts when differing business customs are pointed out to him by Naaki, a local. ‘Home’ to Thane seems to equal whatever office to which he happens to be attached, whereas Naaki’s quiet pride in her country turns out to be one of the driving forces behind her career goals. This leads to an outcome that is as nice as it is unusual in a romance, a genre which thrives on fantasy yet usually adheres with depressing stepfordism to Ruth’s “Whither thou goest”.
In the final analysis the warmth and sincerity of Empi Baryeh’s voice clicked so pleasantly with me that the sweetness of her couple and her effortless prose managed to soothe most of my criticisms and quibbles (for example, Thane is a seasoned international traveller but is taken aback by perfectly ordinary customs processing). I hope Baryeh's future work will capitalise on the slightly quirky humour that occasionally flickered endearingly through Thane's viewpoint. Because, though sapped of vigour by severe structural weaknesses, Chancing Faith still exudes a smile-inducing charm that persuades me to keep an eye out for other international romances this author may produce once her technique has matured a bit more.
1. Some references seemed a bit off timewise until I drew the conclusion that the story takes place circa 2007. Naaki is said to have been 17 at the time of Y2K – a banner year for a very different reason in Ghana, as Naaki points out – and twenty-four when the story takes place (Thane is thirty-two).
Romances of related interest: What I enjoy most about and tend to look for in international or multicultural romances is a sense of caring and determination to navigate the maze of cross-cultural dialogue. Love is one of the most effective ways of ensuring willingness to listen and understand, to gain the courage or craziness required to plunge into that which is unfamiliar, strange, or different, to place oneself in awkward situations, and to risk - even embrace - heartache in order to bridge known and unknown divides inside oneself, in cultures, in families and circles of friends, in the world at large. Building and maintaining relationships that last is always work, but when love brings two (or more) countries and cultures together the hard work can grow exponentially. Whether one goes about such a relationship carefully or impulsively, analytically or intuitively, it is a fascinating labour of love. Their optimistic and affirmative approach to such relationships give romances a very heartening edge over most other forms of literature. With that in mind, here are three more contemporary romances that bring together Africa and the United States (and in the last case, Canada, too) through various combinations of nationality and ethnicity. In The Light Of Love can look like a cheat in this company since the hero and heroine both hail from the United States, but there is another tie. A fourth contemporary romance, Midnight Skies, set in Zimbabwe, can be found in today's companion post. Previously I have also blogged about Blue Fire by Phyllis A. Whitney, which pairs a woman from the USA with a (white) South African man in a 1960s South African setting (it is a romantic suspense).
Uganda: In The Light Of Love by Deborah Fletcher Mello
Deborah Fletcher Mello’s In The Light Of Love (Kimani mass market paperback, 2007) sends a surgeon, Dr Jericho Becton, and a Wesleyan camp leader for medical student volunteers, Talisa London, both from the USA, as relief workers to Uganda. (While In The Light Of Love contains some religious references it is not an Inspirational romance.) The plight of a country trying to stabilize while battling the social and economic devastations of past and localised current armed conflict is a remote backdrop and local characters remain distant others in this oddly conflictless novel, despite an external plot that culminates in dangerous encounters with rebel forces. Paradoxically, more genuine anxiety and tension comes through in the secondary storyline dealing with family troubles in the United States than in either the romance, hospitals, or conflict zones of Uganda, where the reader is reminded of the reason for this setting by random glimpses of the teary-eyed compassion of the hero and heroine. But the storytelling is warm and the writing expertly smooth, the couple is harmoniously matched, and the ensemble cast varied and sympathetic.
USA/Nigeria: Dark Storm Rising by Chinelu Moore
The spicy, category-length romance Dark Storm Rising by Chinelu Moore (Genesis Press/Indigo large print paperback, 1996) pairs independent US aerobics teacher/aspiring holistic health consultant Starmaine Lassiter with persistent Nigerian businessman/investor Daran Ajero in a US East Coast region; the epilogue is set in Nigeria. Romance plots built on misunderstandings are tricky to carry off and it does not help that the writing in Dark Storm Rising is amateurishly stilted, rushed, and unpolished. In spite of the dramatic title, don't expect suspense: this is a straight contemporary romance. Readers able to connect with the characters, who can see humour in their mistrust and snideness, and who don’t mind that culture divides are used as gloss rather than for substance may find it a breezy romp. I reached the end only by skimming.
Senegal: Whispers In The Sand by LaFlorya Gauthier
Of all the romances detailed in this post Whispers in the Sand by LaFlorya Gauthier takes its setting most seriously (One World/Ballantine Books/Indigo paperback, 1996). Momar Diallo, a Senegalese diplomat hoping for a career-advancing foreign posting is instead assigned to escort a documentary film crew from the United States. Sparks of attraction immediately ignite between him and Lorraine Barbette, whom he mistakes for a Canadian embassy employee but in fact is the US-born producer-director (they are kissing by page 31). Everything goes swimmingly until – late in the book – someone in the film crew violates strict cultural protocol. It has been too long since I read Whispers In The Sand to recall specifics beyond that I liked it, but leafing through the pages in default of any notes immediately brought back how assiduously the author has applied herself to creating an immersive cultural experience for the reader. It also reinforced my impression that the relationship takes a definite backseat to the cross-country travelogue, with the couple’s duties keeping them apart half the time. An appendix consisting of a two-page glossary and three recipes (Akara, Bassi Saleté, Yassa With Chicken) plus a couple of small food notes is a nice bonus.