Review By: Melody Charles
Although the genre is ridiculed as a trivial non-factor, fictional romance books remain the most popular category in the US, accounting for over 50% of book sales and spawning millions of devoted readers. Those focusing on non-Caucasian characters and storylines, also known as multicultural romance, have exploded in popularity since the 1990s and in that era, African-American author Beverly Jenkins created a name and following for injecting long-overdue color and culture into the category of historical romance.
After the success of her first such novel, “Night Song.” Jenkins found her popularity growing with each new novel (she’s also written more contemporary works). Although she isn’t the only African-American writer in that select field, she’s won multiple awards and commendations for her work and was voted as, according to the nation’s largest online African-American book club (AABLC), one of the Top 50 Favorite African-American writers of the 20th century.
The latest novel from Jenkins, Destiny’s Embrace, should solidify her hold in the category and is an ideal book to start with for those who don’t want to risk getting lost with the context of already-established characters and storylines from her previous 15 novels (they’re not all connected directly to one another, but most of them are friends or relatives of previous heroines and some resurface briefly in subsequent books), set in the late 1800s and transitioning from Philidelphia to California thanks to the story’s central character, Mariah Cooper.
Considered a ‘spinster’ for being 30 and unmarried, the beautiful Ms. Cooper lives a life of rigorous routine as a seamstress in her mother’s Philadelphia dress shop. Raised as an only child and without a father, Mariah has few friends and interests outside her work thanks to her mother, a bitter woman hateful enough to rival the infamous Joan Crawford for the title of “Mommie Dearest.”
After a simple disagreement spirals into an all-out slugfest, Ms. Cooper flees her home and job, ultimately ending up in California as a newly-hired housekeeper for Destiny, a ranch owned by a wealthy Spanish matriarch, Alanza Yates, and her three sons.
Logan, the oldest and her only stepson, is a handsome African descendant like his late father and is too busy running the spread to keep a decent house. After he reluctantly accepting Mariah’s help, two facts become obvious: instant physical attraction and a mighty clash of personality and wills, thanks to 37-year-old Logan used to doing whatever he pleases and Mariah refusing to placate anybody after a lifetime of doing that with her hateful hag of a mom.
In between the humorous bantering, flying sparks, growing pains and yes, steamy sexcapades, Jenkins weaves incredible historic knowledge about the state and the politics of the time with facts and folklore, including tales of the first man of African descent to arrive in America (an explorer called Estabancio), the Black steamship operator who served under President Taft (William Leidesdorff) and the Black woman who gave the state its name (readers can discover that nugget for themselves). In less capable hands, the facts could burden the story and confuse or bore the reader, but Jenkins’ deft character developments and her distinct way of weaving them into narratives seamlessly give context and enlightenment as well as a thorough history lesson.
Because of the vividly-rendered landscapes, the endearing characters and the genuine, gradual affection built between old and new, Destiny’s Embrace is a must-read for her faithful fans and a great way to begin a new mini-series of books for her newer ones (the end features a tantalizing tease to be fleshed out in its upcoming sequel that mentions a prostitute, a San Fransisco boardinghouse and an intriguing birthmark). For those who enjoy spicy scenes, emotional cliffhangers and learning about pre-Civil War history and culture with an African-American twist, Destiny’s Embrace will become a treasured read.