“A dazzlingly dark and engaging tale full of heartbreak, treachery, and surprise.” – Kirkus
In this vivid reimagining of the French classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it’s the summer when Jackie Robinson breaks Major League Baseball’s color barrier and a sweltering stretch has Harlem’s elite fleeing the city for Westchester County’s breezier climes, two predators stalk amidst the manicured gardens and fine old homes.
Heiress Mae Malveaux rules society with an angel’s smile and a heart of stone. She made up her mind long ago that nobody would decide her fate. To have the pleasure she craves, control is paramount, especially control of the men Mae attracts like moths to a flame.
Valiant Jackson always gets what he wants—and he’s wanted Mae for years. The door finally opens for him when Mae strikes a bargain: seduce her virginal young cousin, Cecily, who is engaged to Frank Washington. Frank values her innocence above all else. If successful, Val’s reward will be a night with Mae.
But Val secretly seeks another prize. Elizabeth Townsend is fiercely loyal to her church and her civil rights attorney husband. Certain there is something redeemable in Mr. Jackson. Little does she know that her worst mistake will be Val’s greatest triumph.
Unforgivable Love is a retelling of the classic Les Liaisons Dangerous, but I’m not familiar with the original story. What I do know is that this book is filled with this laid-back, passionate and vibrant imagery elegance from start to finish. The love and details of music associated with Harlem and the rippling complexity of each of the characters draw a number of favorable points for this book.
Besides being set in one of my favorite eras, I found that the cockiness of the main characters was something that really kept me hooked almost right away because their confidence and self-assurance was not only entertaining but intriguing; almost daringly pulling the reader into their games with them. Likewise, the characters brought an infectious intensity, twists and at times bits of humor in the narrative. Like others will, I’m sure, I really loved the well laid out social intrigue between Mae and her inner circle.
Underneath Mae’s calculating motives and cool demeanor, there’s a girl so hungry for love that I couldn’t help but empathize with. It is clear that the loss of her closest and dearest friend, and first true love has turned Mae against the world and the core motivations behind her plan regarding her cousin comes from a place of pride, ego, rejection and old wounds that haven’t healed around her heart.
I think a lot of other readers will have the same sort of love-hate feelings toward Mae in this book, but more on the empathy level. For me, it was kind of the same for Val’s character when it came to his evolving thoughts about the socialized racism in the world and his uneasiness to ignore it or get others to around him to get involved or think about ways fix the problem. In a lot of ways, Val’s character mirrored Mae except for the fact that his character never seemed to have anyone special to him or that really challenged him emotionally (continuously) until he starts to pursue Elizabeth and the two seemed to run counter-clockwise around one another.
Like I said, I’m not familiar with Les Liaisons Dangerous, but I have seen Cruel Intentions (the film adaptation of the classic) and Unforgivable Love has it beat in my opinion. Scott has taken a fairly well-known story and just made it her own.
Moreover, I don’t think anyone should go without mentioning Scott’s skill at retelling such a classic from the uniquely diverse perspective of African-Americans during the 1940s in Harlem. So little is often re-told with such an abundance of creativity and freshness with classics like this and little is known or can even be imagined of African-Americans with money and class during such an iconic era. Which only made me fall in love with this book even more.
The world built and the characters in Unforgivable Love will hook any reader who enjoys a rich, visual narrative, 1940s Harlem, and Jazz on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. With imperfect characters that you will find yourself loving to hate, hate to love, lost loves, the desire for love, revenge and so much more.
This novel felt great as an all-year kind of read and one you could certainly revisit again and again.
Sophfronia Scott hails from Lorain, Ohio. She was a writer and editor at Time and People magazines before publishing her first novel, All I Need to Get By. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and son.