Title: Let it Shine
Author: Alyssa Cole
Genre: Romance, Historical Fiction
Rating: ★★★★☆ || 4.0 stars
warnings for: racialised violence/state violence, racial & ethnic slurs
I admit, I’m not a romance reader. I like romance in my books, but romance books themselves don’t tend to be my cup of tea. So when I came across this book on my Goodreads recommendations list, I made a face like I just bit into a kumquat and discovered it was a lemon, primarily because a) it was pitched as an interracial romance set during the Civil Rights Movement, which has the potential to be either really good or so, so awful and b) I didn’t know who Alyssa Cole was.
Well, now I know who Alyssa Cole is, and I can confirm that this was an absolutely well-done novel. It’s not free of flaws (will get to those later), but from the beginning it set my fears about what this book could have become to ease. There’s no shortage of really difficult content––slurs, racialised state violence, sexism and scrutiny of female behaviour, antiblackness, anti-Semitism––but none of it felt excessive or like it was there for shock value.
I don’t want to call this a timely novella, because I feel that by doing so I’d be reducing Black lives to state violence and death, but it’s impossible to remove this novella from our current context of brutality and fear, hard not to see elements of the Black Lives Matter movement in the protesters in Let it Shine (not, I want to be clear, that it would be appropriate to reduce a real-life political movement to fictional narratives). But at the same time, the novel takes a nuanced look at the contemporaneous politics of the 1960s, the complicated politics of intercommunal prejudice between two oppressed communities, the very specific role of Christianity within the organisation of marches and demonstrations, the choice of protesters to employ nonviolence as a weapon, as well as the role that women played in all of this.
It’s a fairly short work, only about a hundred pages long, so I can’t say too much about the plot without spoiling it, but Sofie is one of the more complex characters I’ve come across in fiction. She grew up outspoken and spirited, but after a trauma in her early adolescence, she has become reticent and retreating, trying her best to be a Good Girl, to fit into the social mold that’s expected of her. After a chance encounter with her childhood friend Ivan at a SNCC meeting, Sofie is forced to confront both the girl she was when she knew him and the woman she’s become now.
Similarly, Ivan is a fairly nuanced character as well. His power in his relationship with Sofie––and the fact that her mother was employed by his––are by no means skirted over, and his relationship with Sofie is not treated, as it might be in a lesser book, as if it’s some sort of Solution to Racism (institutional problems are not rectified by personal choices!). The complicated dynamic of his being the son of Jewish immigrants who look down on Black people dating the Christian daughter of a man who frequently makes anti-Semitic remarks are not skirted over, nor are the implications of his standing in solidarity with SNCC.
I am not generally a fan of the way people’s bodies are described in romance novels (a consequence of my being sex-averse?), but Cole’s writing makes even those moments bearable. My one major complaint is that the sudden time shift at the end of the novella felt so jarring and not as well-paced as the rest of the novella, and it introduced certain plot threads that I felt were either unnecessary or unable to be resolved in the few pages she dedicates to them. It didn’t negatively impact my experience of the rest of the novella, but I did wish there was a smoother transition and an expansion on the epilogue, or else that it just didn’t exist at all, because the novella feels complete without it.
I definitely recommend that you guys check this out; it’s a pretty short read, and Cole balances the romance and the social commentary so well it seems effortless. Sofie is among my favourite protagonists, and Ivan is spunky and adorable, and there’s such a seamless blend of sweetness and bitterness, of love and hate, and it’s a smart, sharp take on an era that is so often blunted by the simplistic narratives we tell about it.