From everything I’ve heard I’m an atypical reader of (heterosexual) romance novels. I was a member of Georgia Romance Writers for several years (I’m a fairly typical writer of romance novels, which is to say, not good enough to be published), and the advice I got, and have seen repeatedly since, is that the typical romance reader likes staying in her preferred trope lane. If she liked Fifty Shades of Gray, she’ll like further stories with emotionally incompetent billionaires; if she likes Suzanne Brockmann’s work, she’ll like further stories with Navy SEALs for heroes; if she likes Book A where the career-driven but unfulfilled heroine comes home to the small town she left behind to learn that the former high-school quarterback turned house renovator still finds her pretty, she’ll like Books B, C, and D. Historically my ego has been too big for me to admit that I can love a trope just as much as the next reader, and so I tend to be overly picky when it comes to romance novels. I’d like to think this is critical discernment in action and not internalized misogyny, but I’ll concede that I’m probably not the best judge of my own judgment.
So I didn’t seek out Love Lettering; I only borrowed it because my e-library app, which I have been making copious use of in the last year (our local branch is still closed for browsing), advertised plentiful copies available, as part of some book-club promotion. And then I surprised myself by basically polishing it off in a day. I was not going to put my tablet down until this particular set of characters got their Happily Ever After. I should’ve looked for it sooner, because if I have a favorite trope, it’s Slightly Awkward, Nerdy Guys and the Women Who Love Them. (I read the absolute hell out of Nerd in Shining Armor, and then got mad at Vicki Lewis Thompson when subsequent books in the series had more conventional heroes pretending to be nerds.) Love Lettering has just such a hero, and a heroine from a very different frame of mind, and Clayborn does an absolutely fantastic job of bringing them together and making their mutual gradual attraction convincing. The hero’s nerdiness, I should add, is also the source of my biggest complaint about the book—but let me save that for a minute, as it involves spoilers.
So here’s the setup: Meg Mackworth is an artist living in Brooklyn—a commercially viable artist, since her specialty is hand-lettering and calligraphy: she’ll design anything from planners to wall art to wedding invitations. She meets financial analyst Reid Sutherland when she designs the invitations for his wedding, and then again a year later, at which point she learns that he called off said wedding. Reid is feeling alienated and fed up with New York; Meg is feeling creatively blocked, and dealing with the seemingly inexplicable and unstoppable deterioration of her friendship with Sibby, her best friend and roommate. They start hanging out together, initially as a way to have company and explore the city while temporarily escaping their troubles, and over time come to trust and appreciate each other more and more.
Make no mistake: this is beautifully handled. Clayborn tells the entire story from Meg’s perspective, and Meg is not only a sympathetic character but an interesting one. The challenge Clayborn faces is to create a character who’s deeply involved in an artistic world most of us aren’t familiar with: fonts, lettering, typography, design. So she has to do three things at once: convince the reader that Meg is a serious, learned artist; do so while keeping Meg’s thinking about her work legible to the non-artist reader; and balance Meg’s professional goals and concerns with the subplots of her burgeoning relationship with Reid, her faltering relationship with Sibby, and the development of a possible new friendship that faces its own set of obstacles. That is a lot, and Clayborn does it. And makes the professional and personal goals of Sibby, potential new friend Lark, and Meg’s colleagues at the Brooklyn stationery store legible as well, all the while keeping the plot moving. I say this all in retrospect, but at the time I was actually reading (and this is how you know Clayborn wrote a great book) I wasn’t thinking of any of it; I just wanted to know what would happen next.
(I do wonder if Clayborn had to sacrifice some detail in the name of legibility. Meg makes quite a few comments about being sensitive to sexual harassment or just unwanted male attention, and favorably contrasts Reid with previous boorish boyfriends; I have to imagine that, given the chance, a real-life Meg would turn purple with rage at the mention of Eric Gill, or have strong opinions about male domination of typography generally, and possibly even strong opinions about the male-dominated intersections of font dissemination and design, open source, and Big Tech. But the subjects don’t come up.)
If you’re going to love the heroine of a romance novel, you’d better love the hero as well, or you run into the souring feeling of He’s Just Not Good Enough for Her. Reid is stiff and often ill at ease but his generosity and sympathy surface quickly; he’s a walking rebuttal to the stereotype of Wall Street quant as high on his own greatness. He has a good relationship with his parents and younger sister, and even has a good attitude towards menstruation. When the stakes get high enough (I’m being vague; there is a nice plot twist in Love Lettering that I feel obligated to preserve), he turns out to be perfectly capable of speaking his feelings. He’s got to be admirable and attractive without seeming too perfect, and here too Clayborn pulls it off.
But there’s one aspect of Clayborn’s presentation of Reid that’s bothering me, and I don’t think it would if the book weren’t overall so good and so accomplished. I’m writing this review three weeks after I read it, which is another compliment. (And which also means that I may be misremembering wrong, since I can’t check the text.) So now let me give you your spoiler alert.
still with me? okay.
Early on, we learn what Reid does, and Meg professes bafflement, since math was never her thing. Justified, since, as I said, the book takes Meg’s intellectual and professional aspirations seriously, and the context of Reid’s and Meg’s interactions take place from the start in her intellectual and professional context, not his. And then Reid doesn’t talk about his work much. Also justified (you’ll have to trust me on this one). But we do learn along the way that he got into his work through a love of math, not out of a goal to make lots of money or a particular interest in finance, and that he was something of a math genius who entered college early.
All of this hangs together, more or less. One can find real-life examples of math prodigies who ended up doing quantitative analysis on Wall Street. (If I imagine real-life Meg being angry about misogyny in type design, I also imagine real-life Reid being less than impressed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s work.) The problem for me came at the end, when Reid and Meg are a happy couple, and he has left Wall Street and is busy studying to be a math teacher. Not a university professor, mind you, but an ordinary school math teacher.
Now, granted, if you’re going to teach math, it helps to love math. But the math taught by an elementary school teacher is not the same math as the math studied at high levels by college-at-15 math geniuses. And furthermore, college-at-15 math geniuses, in my (admittedly very limited, secondhand) experience, are exactly the group that, much as they love math, are most likely to hate elementary school math classes. Elementary school was not where they found the math challenges they loved; it was where they sat around bored out of their skulls waiting for everyone else to grasp concepts they grasped two or three years earlier. Even if Reid loves teaching and loves children, and loves talking with children about math, he’s still not going to find what he loved about math in the New York State curriculum requirements. He’s more likely to end up preferring burning math class to teaching it.
(Note: if ever you should write a romance novel in which the hero loves math but hates standard American math pedagogy and tends to rant about this at length, and tells the heroine that she absolutely should not be afraid of calculus, please let me know so I can single-handedly fund your Kickstarter. Bonus points if he reads Gödel, Escher, Bach and Neal Stephenson. Super mega bonus points if the heroine ends up reading Neal Stephenson just to find out what the big deal is and ends up pointing out to him that Randy Waterhouse of Cryptonomicon fails the He’s Just Not Good Enough for Her test hard. But that’s a rant—from me, not your fictional hero or heroine, whom I am looking forward to meeting—for another time.)
This is a detail. But Clayborn is so good with details! She convinced me that Meg felt passionately about typography, and that Meg and Reid could come together, and that part of their coming together was about pattern recognition, the one area of overlap between her artistic specialization and his quantitative specialization. But having Reid go into elementary school teaching is like having Meg go into designing Hallmark cards: it makes sense unless you’re paying attention to the details. The impression Clayborn leaves is that Meg’s passion is worthy of nuance and detail, but on Reid’s side, math is math is math, what’s the difference?
And in leaving that impression, Clayborn runs the risk of playing to the prejudices of her audience. The average reader of Love Lettering is far more likely to find beauty in lettering than in high-level theoretical math, and more likely to find value in teaching in public schools than in quantitative analysis or advanced econometric analysis or stochastic modeling in financial contexts or digital-currency work or AI research, or even teaching a more limited group of kids, as with Art of Problem Solving. But that the reader doesn’t see the value as easily doesn’t mean the value isn’t there. Reid shouldn’t have to justify his love of not-necessarily-accessible math, just like Meg doesn’t have to justify her love of lettering. He was still a kind person and a worthy romance hero back when his work was less legible. And I know I’m not representative of any kind of audience worth catering to, but I prefer my nerds to be able to stay nerds.