Unforgivable Love by Sophfronia Scott

Some of you know my love for Les Liaisons Dangereuses: it’s my favorite play (EVER), has spawned three of my favorite movies, and hands down, is the greatest epistolary novel of all time (OF ALL TIME). It’s got everything – love, sex, revenge, horrible people being horrible, comeuppance, banter, and no one learning anything, at all. Ever.

So when Amanda (seriously, this was like SIX MONTHS AGO) said “Hey, there’s a retelling of Dangerous Liaisons set in Harlem in the 1940s coming out!” I jumped on it and waited EVER SO PATIENTLY.

It’s everything I wanted. Everything.

This is ultimately the story of Mae Malveaux, a cosmetic empire heiress, and the one person who was ever her equal in everything, Valiant Jackson. Mae finds out that her most recent lover left her to marry a sweet virginal girl, and Mae wants nothing more than to humiliate the man who would dare leave her, so she engages Val, a known man about town, to seduce the girl and teach her a few things.

Val has his own project in mind: Elizabeth Townsend, the very proper, devout wife of a prominent civil rights attorney who is down south on a case. Val wants her to surrender to him. A bet is made on Val’s success, and over the course of the hot summer of 1947 (the summer that Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball), things go horribly, horribly wrong.

The thing with this story is that you can set it pretty much anywhere and anytime that there’s an upper crust of people who have a lot of money and a lot of time on their hands, so they can devote a lot of energy into doing whatever they want to do. Mae and Val don’t need to spend any time making money or worrying about keeping roofs over their heads. Neither do most of the other major characters. This level of scheming doesn’t work if you have a day job.  But within that constraint, you can put it anywhere.

Setting it in Harlem with Black characters adds a level of complexity to it. Mae’s motivation to become the woman she is – able to have her cake, eat it, and still convince everyone that she never had any cake in the first place – is that she knows that a woman’s place in the world is a tenuous thing, and her reputation is the most important thing to society. So she socially engineers everyone around to see one thing about her, while she does what she wants. While the Marquise de Merteuil only has to walk that tightrope in one dimension, Mae Malveaux has to walk it in two. She is both Black and a woman.

Cecily (the Cecile analogue) also has to walk that tightrope, but she walks it with no knowledge. While Mae knows about pleasure and how to get it, Cecily has been kept in total ignorance of everything, even of her own body. I liked the tweaks made to Cecily (giving her an happy ending, for one). In the play, Cecile is a difficult character to get around because we’re not given much. This novel expands on her inner life, and explores her desires beyond the ones that Mae puts into her head.

Valiant/Valmont is a fascinating character because he’s gone through his life taking who and whatever he wanted, and it’s when he exposes himself to Elizabeth that he becomes a better version of himself. Of course, that better version is completely incompatible with his life and his own concept of who he is.

Elizabeth finds a kind of love that she doesn’t have in her marriage, which is perfectly and staidly respectable, but boring. The pleasure she finds with Val is new and exciting for her. She does actually love him. But ultimately, this love is doomed, and so are they.

The key with a Liaisons take is that the main characters aren’t good people. They’re legitimately horrible who do horrible things. But they have to be sympathetic: you have to understand where they are coming from. In a book, you can’t rely on John Malkovich and Glenn Close (or Colin Firth and Annette Benning or Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillipe) to add the charisma. Scott does an excellent job of drawing these two damaged people and making them whole people.

This was a GREAT variation on Liaisons. I couldn’t put it down. The setting was perfect – especially with polite Harlem society being centered around the church (even as everyone is spending their evenings at the jazz clubs). The level of moral tightrope walking that needs to be done is incredible and perfect for this story.

If you already have an affinity for Liaisons, or you’re looking for something set in Harlem- READ THIS. NOW. And then tell me if my casting of Renee Elise Goldsberry for Mae is correct (It’s correct).  (I mean, hell, if we’re going to the full Hamilton route, then Leslie Odom Jr. is your Valiant.)

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