AfterEllen’s Summer of Love: “Conflict of Interest” by Jae

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Every Friday through September, we’ll be posting a review of a lesbian/bi-themed romance novel as part of our Summer of Love. Miss any? Read them here.

Rape is not an easy subject to tackle, and it’s unexpected in a romance novel (although, full disclosure, this is not my go-to genre so I’m a bit of a novice in this area). In Jae’s Conflict of Interest, though, rape is at the center of the story. Aiden, a Portland sex crimes cop who was conceived from non-consensual sex, meets Dawn, a sexual assault counselor the day before she is raped in her home.

If it sounds heavy, it is, at first. The first half of the book is dedicated to Aiden helping Dawn track down her rapist and put him on trial (he’s a serial rapist of lesbians because he was upset his mother left him and his father for another woman). The women develop a close friendship, but Aiden tries to keep a professional distance despite the attraction Jae makes clear inside both of her protagonists’ thoughts. They take notice of one another’s oft “snug-fitting” outfits and close proximity to one another. 

Conflict of Interest is a very slow burn. The 502-page book only lets Aiden and Dawn begin to consider a romantic relationship with one another after the trial is over and the perpetrator has been found guilty. And even then, there are obstacles. For one, Dawn’s father and brother were both killed in the line of duty, which makes Dawn and her mother both skeptical. Speaking of her mother, she makes it clear that even though Dawn has dated women before, she’d prefer Dawn date men. (Thankfully, she doesn’t push that hard.) And then there’s the professional aspect, as a cop should not involve herself with a victim. But her co-workers don’t care—they’re happy to see she’s actually spending time with a woman for more than one night. Aiden is a commitment-phobe—until Dawn, of course.

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The biggest hurdle, however, is that Dawn is still recovering from a tragic assault. She has major PTSD and any kind of physicality with Aiden has to be halted or else she goes back to the moment when a man broke into her apartment and forced himself on her. Aiden is patient, understanding and supportive but, knowing this is a romance novel and eventually they are going to have a breakthrough, there is almost too much build-up. There are several times where readers will think “It’s finally happening!” only to see there are multiple chapters left before the same situation will not play out over and over again. While this might be the case for many rape victims and their partners in real life, it didn’t feel necessary to the story. There are other ways we could have gathered that time passed and their connection had deepened to the point where they were closer to intimacy than ever. Instead it began to feel like a tease that would never pay off.

What I admired about the story was Jae’s premise surrounding the assault and the bisexual prosecutor, Kade, who expertly proved the lesbophobic dyke bar bouncer guilty. (He found his victims by following them home from the bar and his defense was that it was always consensual.) There is also a likable butch Latina detective, Del, that was Dawn’s father’s partner and is treated like a part of the family, almost a parental figure to Dawn. And the subject of rape is handled delicately and with care so that it is not sensationalized. Instead, it is dealt with as a hard truth that will never go away for Dawn or Aiden, but a circumstance in which to accept and heal from while also helping the other through their own associated pain.

Conflict of Interest will be of interest to romance lovers who are also fans of police dramas (SVU, anyone?). But if you are more interested in the lightness of love without complications of PTSD, it might not be your best bet.

Conflict of Interest is available from Amazon. (Better yet, call your local feminist bookstore and see if they can order it for you!)