27 October 2014

Loving the Mayor of Toronto

Rosemary Aubert
Toronto: Harlequin, 1986
Breathless, she couldn't say anything, and taking her silence as acquiescence, he kissed her again, whispering, "I'll call you tomorrow."
     Then he was gone. Before she went in, Jenn took a good look at the spot on her front porch where she'd just been kissed – twice – by His Worship, the mayor of Toronto.
Municipal elections take place across Ontario today, meaning Rob Ford's time as Toronto's mayor is nearly over. Given the man's current health struggles, it may be unseemly to feel good about this, but I do. Ford did considerable harm to Toronto. Barring the election of his brother, which is unlikely, the city will be better off.

Fifteen years ago, when I was living in Toronto, a clownish figure named Mel Lastman was its mayor. Come election time I cast my vote for transgender rights advocate Enza Anderson. She came in third.

Enza Anderson and Mel Lastman, Toronto, 1999
Toronto politics seems to swing wildly between the conventional and unconventional  – or maybe that's just me. In 1986, the year Firebrand was published, the city's mayor was Art Eggleton. Then in the third of his four terms of office, he'd go on to Ottawa, where he served as President of the Treasury Board, Minister of Infrastructure, Minister of International Trade and Minister of National Defence.

When he was through, Lastman returned to his Bad Boy furniture stores.

Michael Massey, the hunk at the centre of this novel is more like Eggleton than Lastman, though I'm betting on John Sewell as the model. Like Sewell, Mike starts out as an activist politician, gets his face smacked by a fellow alderman, and rises to become mayor of our largest city.

The Globe & Mail, 14 March 1972
We first meet Mike in a police van after he's been picked up for disrupting the demolition of an old house (see: Sewell, John). Seated across from him is tearful Jenn MacDonald. Mike got himself arrested on purpose – something to do with bringing attention to the cause, I think – but Jenn is along for the ride only through a misunderstanding. Whatever will husband Bobby think? Fast friends, Mike and Jenn spend the night in neighbouring cells, are freed in the wee hours, and part on the Gerrard Street Bridge. It's not that Mike isn't attracted, but that Jenn is a married woman.

The second chapter begins fifteen years later. Jenn has split from Bobby, and is now working as a librarian at Toronto City Hall. After all this time, her thoughts drift back to the innocent evening spent with Mike. It wasn't that she wasn't attracted, but that she was married.

Mike got married himself – to a Rosedale ice queen – but is recently divorced. Now mayor of Toronto, Jenn sees him from time to time walking through the lobby, but he never sees her. Then, one day, they happen to stand next to each other while watching skaters on Nathan Phillips Square.  

Firebrand being my first Harlequin Superromance, I had no idea what to expect. Still, these things surprised:
  • Elizabeth II as a character.
  • Ribaldry.
  • A debate over whether the Toronto Police Service should be armed with Uzis.
  • A rally against arts cut-backs (with allusion to the cancellation of The Friendly Giant).
  • A sex scene that takes place in the mayor's office.
Yes, a sex scene in the mayor's office. What's more, it takes place before expansive windows overlooking the city:
Suddenly the room behind her was plunged into darkness, and the square outside seemed to spring into full vibrant light. The fountain in the middle gleamed beneath its lighted arches. Queen Street and Bay Street glowed from Saturday night traffic. The clock tower of Old City Hall shone the hour with benign dignity, while all around, office buildings, banks, insurance companies and hotels cast glitter from myriad windows into the night. And above it all shone the full moon, golden, warm, familiar, seductive.
Firebrand is as much a novel about the love between Jenn and Mike as it is the author's love for her hometown. This is no brilliant observation on my part.

The couple stroll through Chinatown, drive along the Danforth, and sneak out of a ball at the King Edward Hotel. There are times it's all a bit forced, though I'm ready to blame an editor's heavy hand for sentences such as this: "She was in The Room, the most exclusive boutique in Simpsons, a huge department store on Yonge Street not far from City Hall."

"I love you, you big heap of brick and concrete," Jenn cries out one morning as she gazes upon the city. The greatest threat to the budding romance between mayor and librarian is found in their disagreement over the future of the Leslie Street Spit. That obstacle evaporates unresolved; others, promised by cover copy, prove no more intrusive than Timothy Eaton's left toe, and things move along toward the usual conclusion. Like City Hall itself, Firebrand alternates between the conventional and the unconventional. Or maybe not. It's my first Superromance.

Note to cleaning staff:
Before her, all six-foot-four of him glowing in the soft window light, stood Mike, fully and gloriously a man. Hungry for her with a hunger that was obvious in every part of his huge body. She dropped her eyes, suddenly shy.
     That gesture of shyness pushed him right over the edge of longing. He wanted her so much. He took a single step closer.
     And she fairly ran into his arms. Sweet, wise, willing Jenn. She had his heart, his soul, his body and his love.
     Tenderly he lowered her onto the deep, soft rug.

Trivia: The man who slapped John Sewell was Alderman Horace Brown, author of The Corpse was a BlondeThe Penthouse Killings, Murder in the Rough and Whispering City.

Object: A 306-page mass market paperback with and additional four pages of advertising. Today's bibliophiles will regret having missed out on this exciting offer:

My copy was given to me by Amy Lavender Harris, author of the acclaimed Imagining Toronto. I have Amy to thank for bringing this novel to my attention.

Access: Published in April 1986 – and never again – it's held only by Library and Archives Canada. There are plenty of used copies available online, ranging in price from 1¢ to US$44.60. Pay no more than one dollar.

The only translation of which I'm aware is Um homem inatingível [An Unattainable Man], published in 1986 by Brazil's Editora Nova Cultural.

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  1. And still so many questions, Brian. What's with the body language on the cover? Is he using judo? (Kata Guruma -- The Shoulder Wheel Technique.) Why is there a man in a Flyers jersey in the bg? And what's the significance of the number "20"? In the bicycle/sex passage, has anyone ever actually referred to changing gears when the road changes "angle"? And I understand that that book rack is attractive -- I'll give you that -- but how does it save space? Does it compress the books? Is it some kind of vice?

  2. All good questions. What I can't figure out is why Mike is twenty pounds heavier on the back cover. He and Jenn are both wearing the same clothes, so it's got to be the same day, right? Maybe I'm wrong - the part in his hair has switched sides. Could it be that Mike gains the weight during the novel? Does this explain why his body is described as "hungry" and "huge".

  3. Who knew that politics in Toronto could be so exciting? Or that Rosemary Aubert wrote romance before she wrote mysteries? Not me. I have an Ellis Portal book by Aubert to try but don't know much about her otherwise.

    1. Who knew? Not me. Well, not until Amy sent me this book. There were three other Harlequins, all published under "Lucy Snow". The one I'd most like to find is Garden of Lions, about a Montrealer who teaches journalism in a Brussels.

  4. I love this book. It's on my perennial romance bookshelf. And yes, Rosemary told me it's Sewell. She interviewed him for the book.

    (But I don't like that he cops out on the election at the end of the book.)

    1. Thank you, Susan. Your info makes this Montreal boy think he knows at least something about Toronto history.

      (I'm with you about the ending. Why cop out? Mike was still the preferred candidate. Just think about all those tired and dedicated campaign workers.)