I've read and enjoyed a few of Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus's past novels (including The Nanny Diaries) so when I was given the chance to read their latest, The First Affair, through NetGalley I thought, why not? The novel was a good one and while I didn't love it as much as their others, it still had me frantically flipping pages (so to speak) to find out what would happen in the end.
Here's the synopsis:
Jamie McAlister has resigned herself to the fact that in this job market, her painfully expensive degree might only get her a position at Starbucks, when she suddenly lands a prestigious internship at the White House. Although she doesn’t hit it off with the other interns—lockjaws who come from so much money that ten weeks without a paycheck doesn’t faze them—she is eager to work hard and make the best of the opportunity while it lasts.The best thing about this book was the feeling of being behind the scenes of a huge scandal. Just as Kraus and McLaughlin's novel Between You and Me (my review here) made you think about what Britney Spears was going through during her breakdown, The First Affair put you in a position to really consider how Monica Lewinsky was feeling during the scandal with President Clinton. It's easy to forget that what we hear in the media isn't just another fictional story. These books allow us to remember there's a real person behind the reports and lies.
An unexpected encounter late one evening with the charismatic President Gregory Rutland seems like just a fleeting flirtation, but when he orchestrates clandestine meetings and late-night phone calls, their relationship quickly escalates. Jamie knows what she is doing is wrong: he’s married, he has kids, he’s the President. Yet each time she tries to extricate herself, Greg pulls her back in.
With the conflicted desires of the most powerful man in the world driving her to her breaking point, Jamie can’t help but divulge intimate details to those closest to her. But she must have confided in the wrong person, because she soon finds herself, and everyone she cares about, facing calculated public destruction at the hands of Greg’s political enemies, and—perhaps no matter how much he cares about her—at the hands of Greg himself.
I know I'm going to sound contradictory with my next statement. I love McLaughlin and Kraus's writing because it feels like I'm experiencing everything right along with the character. But...feeling some of those things makes for an uncomfortable experience. The fact is, Jamie is having an affair with the President of the United States. That's some heavy stuff. Even a character having an affair with a regular married man could be hard to take but the things Jamie has to deal with, particularly at the end of the novel, are gut wrenching. Though I sometimes felt emotionally uncomfortable while reading, I still think the authors did a great job of writing this story and the characters. Even though you know what Jamie is doing is wrong and so, well, stupid, you still feel for her and you want her to be ok.
I have to point out that the novel wasn't all doom and gloom. There were several moments that had me laughing out loud, particularly about Jamie's age and current point in life. Jamie's 21 and trying to enter an extremely brutal job market. When Greg asks her about how she ended up at the internship she replied:
I had a complex strategy my generation is really perfecting. First I applied for every job in America. Then I applied to every internship.This is the sad but true reality of twentysomethings these days. Thinking about this, I suppose this line is really not all that funny but since I am in the same boat as Jamie (though a few years older) I can see the dark humour in it. The next line, though, is one that I think everyone can find amusing. Jamie is talking to her mom about life and after asking a horrified Jamie if she's on the pill, her mom says:
Look, I'd rather you were a bad Catholic than a good mother right now.I couldn't stop laughing when I read this line. Hilarious.
While I was reading this book I wondered if I had a different take on it because I'm not American. Political sex scandals just don't happen in Canada. Seriously, I looked it up and there are hardly any and they do not reach the proportions of, say, Clinton and Lewinsky. The most scandalous story I knew had to do with the wife of a Prime Minister fooling around with the Rolling Stones in the '70s. I know it really doesn't matter that I'm Canadian and the characters are not but I couldn't shake the sense that I was reading it differently than an American would.
While the story of The First Affair was interesting, I struggled with making the connections for some issues (I still have no idea what the deal was with Jamie's ex) and the characters weren't particularly captivating. I did like that I was able to be surprised by some characters' actions and motives. That being said, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus have written a solid novel. It explores an intense set of circumstances but allows for some lighthearted moments and does not shying away from the severity of the situation. I didn't love this novel but that won't stop me from picking up their next book.