Title: The Buchanan Letters
Author: Neil Plakcy
Publisher: MLR Press
Length: 75k words
Genre: m/m Contemporary Romance
Heat: 3 – Sexy & Mild
Sex Frequency: 2 – Few and Far Between
Keywords/Tags: College, Coming Out, History, Characters That Should Grovel, Research, Presidents, Awesome Female Sidekicks
Rating: Pretty Good
Secret letters exposing James Buchanan as our first gay president lead college history professor Jeff Berman to fall in love with disgraced reporter Pascal Montrouge, who can make all his dreams come true—or destroy everything Jeff has worked for.
Jeff Berman, a Pennsylvania history professor, discovers correspondence between President James Buchanan and his male aide, which depicts their sexual and emotional relationship. With the help of handsome Pascal Montrouge, a disgraced reporter hungry to return to the big time, Jeff is swept away by publicity for what he has seen as an academic book, and his dreams of tenure and true love seem to be coming true. But when his life falls apart and his academic life is threatened, Jeff questions whether Pascal has only been using him—and how he can build a new life from the debris of his old one.
I’m a bit fan of Mr. Plakcy, though I really only know his most recent romance work instead of his earlier gay mystery series. His Have Body, Will Guard series is one of my all time favorites and I love to re-read it — it’s a classic gay adventure story. And thought I’ve not read all the shorts, I’ve liked quite a few of his South Beach novels. This novel diverges in some ways from those recent works, but in many ways remains similar. Fans of those books might find this somewhat not to their taste simply because of the romance within, but I found that what I most liked about the novel was Jeff’s own story, which takes the forefront in the plot.
While antiquing with his best friend and co-professor Naomi, 19th Century History professor Jeff Berman stumbles upon a forgotten and secret piece of history — a long lost box of correspondence between President James Buchanan and his aide, Roland Petitjohn. At first, the letters seem benign and frankly boring, concerning matters of state, but with further observation reveal a startling relationship that lasted over twenty years. Though there’s no proof of a homosexual affair, the extremely personal correspondence leads Jeff to make that connection, especially with corroborating evidence that the aide’s Quaker beliefs might have affected Buchanan’s outlook on slavery.
Finding the letters is a historian’s dream, though not only for the historical importance. Jeff hasn’t yet made tenure and is over halfway there until he’s up for review, and his University leans heavily on faculty to research and publish. The long-lost love affair could be his ticket to cushy professorship and the life he’s always wanted to lead. But, researching, writing, and publishing the book don’t mean much — he needs some kind of publicity.
That’s where Pascal Montrouge comes in. Jeff doesn’t know Pascal’s history or disgraced reputation when he first interviews him for the Times-Courier, he only knows that Pascal is sexy, confident and he hasn’t had sex in a very long time. Could Pascal be the man to sweep him off his feet? Pascal is like a thunderstorm that comes in and carries him away into publicity stardom, but is it all glitz and glamour with nothing underneath? And is Jeff just a meal-ticket for Pascal to resurrect his dying career?
If I hadn’t really liked Jeff and his own solitary plotline of research into Buchanan, the politicking of the History department, and his own progression in life, then I would have rated this book even lower. Sadly, the romance in this novel felt lackluster to me. It’s a much more real-to-life romance (in tone and plot) than most, and it isn’t the center of the story, though neither is it shunted to the side very much. Still, I have a very hard time forgiving characters who I’ve felt have made grievous errors and I never really warmed up again to Pascal after he [early on in the story] wrongs Jeff in a bad way. The way the story was handled in response to that choice the author made for Pascal was done in all the right ways. It would have been out of character for Pascal to really grovel as much as would have secretly pleased me, and Plakcy didn’t try to push an overly sweet HEA on us in the end. I have nothing to really criticize about the romantic plot here, with the exception that I just couldn’t see happiness for these guys. The real work on their relationship is left for after the story ends, when they’ll have to slog through and work on Pascal’s problems that made him a dick in the first place, and it’s just one of those things that I won’t believe until I see.
While those problems made this a book that won’t ever be a favorite from Mr. Plakcy’s catalogue for me, I still enjoyed much of the rest of the story. There is actually quite a bit of detail about the story between Buchanan and his aide, even the “original” letters written and interspersed throughout the story. I quite liked seeing Jeff’s historical research and the writing of his book, and even some of the politicking in his department later in the book. Once Jeff’s book takes hold in the media he starts to see the life he’s planned for himself in a new light. His co-workers are somewhat different, the teaching is different. He’s being made into a “gay historian” and he wavers about how he really feels about being pigeonholed that way. I really like character growth stories and though they’re more rare among romance, where the partnership instead tends to be the focus of the growth, I found Jeff’s life quest satisfying. Pascal’s place in his life goes in and out as the story progresses. There are times where he’s not present for large chunks of time, and because of how I never warmed up to them as a couple, I admit I enjoyed those times a bit more. Whenever Jeff would be with Pascal, I could never quite decide that he wasn’t lowering his standards because he wanted to fall in love more than he wanted Pascal.
So, while I enjoyed it, I can’t quite recommend it to all contemporary romance fans. I think most of you would probably dislike Pascal as much as I did and it depends upon you as a reader if you really mind this type of romance, that is less perfect and more suited to real-life relationships. My feelings, however, did nothing to dissuade me from liking this author and I look forward to all of his future work.