The Buchanan Letters Paperback – 19 Oct 2012
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The Buchanan Letters is the latest novel from Neil S. Plakcy who has created quite a name for himself as well as an impressive following with a series of gay mystery novels featuring gay Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa'aka, another series of adventure romances entitled "Have Body, Will Guard," and a Golden Retriever Mysteries series of murder mysteries along with a number of other novels and collections of short stories he has edited.
The Buchanan Letters is one of Plakcy's stand-alone novels. The combination of likeable characters, historical speculation, a controversial subject, romance, and society's reception to the possibility that one of its presidents was a gay man makes the novel both fascinating and a fast read.
Plakcy's characters are likeable. Jeff Berman is gay and with the discovery of the Buchanan letters he ends up not just writing a book, but becoming more than a bit of a celebrity. His best friend, Naomi, is a lesbian who is also on track to becoming tenured and both are in need of some loving--not from each other, but from others. Into Berman's life steps Pascal Montrouge--a reporter with a discredited past who also happens to be "handsome, gay and charming." Introducing Jeff to the right people, getting him interviewed in the press and on TV and more than satisfying Jeff in bed, Pascal, at least at first, appears to be able to gratify both Jeff's romantic and professional needs. It is the Jeff Berman/Pascal Montrouge relationship as well as the public's reaction to Jeff's "outing" of President James Buchanan that rapidly becomes the focus of the novel. Some embrace Jeff's research and theory about the president while others vilify him. Equally conflicted are the feelings Jeff has for Pascal: has he finally found the man for him or is Jeff being used by Pascal as a stepping stone to restore his reputation and launch himself on to bigger and better things? As the fight to win tenure gets hotter with homophobes in the college's history department and students who are both supportive and angry with their professor, so does the romance and/or possible betrayal of Jeff by Pascal.
Plakcy's timing for the publication of this novel couldn't be better considering the new uproar over Buchanan's personal life brought on by Newsweek magazine's May 21, 2012, cover depicting President Obama complete with a rainbow-colored halo as "The First Gay President" (figuratively speaking) after Obama's "evolution" on and public statements in support of same sex marriage. Plakcy creatively uses the real-life controversy about America's only single President as the impetuous of his novel (changing some of the alleged facts and characters in the historical dispute as well as inventing letters other than those that actually exist). Included in the text at strategic points of the novel are the twelve letters (fictional) Buchanan writes to Petitjohn, each one slowly becoming more intimate than the last. With just more than a little twinge of soap opera elements, The Buchanan Letters is a light and enjoyable read that will keep readers engaged from cover to cover.
The mysteries in the books are whether Jeff and Naomi will get tenure and whether Pascal is a trustworthy person with whom a more permanent relationship can be established. It is well written and interesting to those who like American history and academic life.
While Pettijohn is a fictional character, there is precedent with the speculation due to Buchanan's close and intimate relationship with William Rufus King, congressman, senator, and Vice President. They lived together for 13 years from 1840 until King's death in 1853. Buchanan referred to the relationship as a "communion", and the two attended all parties together. Many contemporaries noted the closeness; e.g., Andrew Jackson calling them "Miss Nancy" and "Aunt Fancy". Buchanan adopted King's mannerisms and romanticized view of southern culture, and both were considered soft, effeminate, and eccentric. The two men's nieces destroyed their uncles' correspondence; the limited surviving letters express the affection of a special friendship, though one not uncommon between men of that era. [See Wikipedia articles on Buchanan and King.]
So “Buchanan Letters” is not out of bounds in suggesting that Buchanan was the first homosexual president but did acknowledge that expressions of affection between men were quite common in that era. The book, also, provides some insights to a president considered one of our weakest but, also, important in that the nation increased its drive toward division and civil war during his administration.
He's not a charming writer like Josh Lanyon; not a poetic visual writer like Harper Fox, but I admire him greatly.
And so to "The Buchanan Letters," Neil's latest on Kindle. This story resonated with me because its setting in small-college academe echoed my world of museum curators and scholarly geekdom. But the core story - about Jeff Berman, a thirty-something college professor who happens upon a clutch of letters that James Buchanan wrote to a man who was apparently his lover in the 1840s - is subtly powerful in the way it ponders what happiness is, and how each of us can influence our own lives in ways that we might not expect.
The ensuing story is about how the letters- and the dashing Frenchman who helps him publicize his new book - changes Jeff Berman's life. It's about not just being gay, but realizing that being gay matters - being proud matters; not just to others, but to one's own sense of worth.
There is a romance in here, but it doesn't follow the m/m pattern, and there is no easy HEA here. It's about as romantic as Neil gets (as he does in some of his Miami-Beach based novels and in the really fun Tunisian series).
Why would anyone care whether James Buchanan, our fairly faint 15th president, was gay? Well, I've always cared, and this book made me think about why that's so. "The Buchanan Letters" is a mild book - but a gently profound one as well.
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.
It was well written and enjoyable for me.