When Charlotte Hilaire gets stranded in Madrid on a snowy winter night, she takes a chance and gets in touch with Adrianna Coates, a fellow art academic whom Charlotte was both intimidated by and attracted to during her grad school days. Once reunited, the connection between the two women is electric, but they'll have to grapple with diverging career goals and all the perils of long-distance dating before finding their happily ever after in Verity Lowell's Meet Me in Madrid. We talked to Lowell about her warts-and-all portrayal of academia and the joys of gorgeous clothes and good food.
What makes the art world a good setting for a romance?
The art world contains multitudes. It has very public, social sites, like museums, auction houses and galleries, but also more personal, even intimate spaces, like art studios, classrooms and offices. Romance can bloom anywhere, of course. But I like the kinds of questions around beauty and appearances and history and seduction that are sort of embedded in art whether we like it or not. In romance, I really enjoy being immersed in subcultures, so my hope is that Meet Me in Madrid gives readers an insider's view of the art worlds particular to Charlotte and Adrianna. Strange as it might seem, museum people and academics don't always cross paths—so Charlotte, the courier, and Adrianna, the professor, might never have reconnected if it weren't for an unexpected storm!
What are some of the most common misconceptions about academia? Did you set out to correct any in Meet Me in Madrid?
Would that I could! But yes, as a college professor, I do often wish people knew how much more we do besides hold forth for a few hours a day in a classroom (or on Zoom!)—which is not easy to do well. At times, there's an almost pastoral dimension to teaching: We counsel, we listen, we support, we defend. Ideally, we grow and learn. And many of us do this until our lives are consumed by the lives of students. Meanwhile, the academy, in addition to being stubbornly elitist and homogenous, really is cutthroat. Some years there are only 20 or so available jobs in a given subfield of art history—that's for everyone with a Ph.D. basically in the English-speaking world. So it's rough, especially when you've done everything right for seven or eight years of grad school, to not get a job at the end. I guess I wanted to write a bit of a love letter to my talented, driven colleagues on the job market, especially feminists and people doing anti-racism work.
How did you decide what Charlotte's and Adrianna's jobs would be? Was it an opportunity for you to fictionally explore roads not taken, or would you dislike having either of their specialities?
I love this question. I'm a midcareer specialist in 17th-century Baroque art. But I'm also a closet lover of 19th-century French painting—Manet, Corot, etc. If I could go back, I might well follow Charlotte's path exploring race and impressionism in the American South. Thinking outside the canon is still the exception in art history. But I wanted Charlotte to be someone who did that anyway.
Adrianna, frankly, has followed a path closer to mine. She's the more conservative scholar, and she's reaped the rewards of playing it safe. I have enjoyed curating and would like to do more. It's pretty unusual for professors to organize shows, but I liked that access to the public, that kind of conversation. When I grow up as an academic, I want to be more like Charlotte!
How did you decide upon Madrid as a setting? Have you traveled there yourself? What appeals to you about that city in particular?
A mí me encanta Madrid! I was a Fulbright scholar in Madrid and lived and researched there for about a year and a half. It's a wonderful, complicated, austerely gorgeous place. The Prado is, to my mind, the best European museum. And Madrid is captivating: The wine is lovely. The terrace bar culture is addictive. And it's very queer!
Which of the marvelous meals that Adrianna and Charlotte share would you most like to enjoy yourself?
Each meal in the book demonstrates care, emotional connection and delight in life's sensual pleasures. Cooking and entertaining are definitely some of the ways I express my feelings for people. I've traveled to the American South fairly regularly, and I make shrimp and grits all the time! But I also do a pretty decent tortilla de patatas.
I also absolutely love a great restaurant experience. Madrid is fascinating in many ways, but to me, it's got nothing on the other cities in the book—L.A., New York, Chicago and New Orleans—in terms of diverse and creative food culture.
As a devoted summer person, this book really made me reconsider winter as a romantic season. Is it your personal favorite, or was it more that it made sense for Adrianna and Charlotte's love story?
My work is done! I grew up in the Rockies and love a good blizzard. Also, the academic life is such a cyclical one. It felt important to take Adrianna and Charlotte's relationship through several seasons. I do think cold winter nights are wonderfully conducive to getting on with the coziness though!
Clothing plays a large role in Charlotte's and Adrianna's lives. "They were both women who loved to dress," as you very elegantly put it. Did you have any specific inspirations for either character's personal style? Were there any outfits on the page that you'd love to have in real life?
So happy that came across. Clothing is definitely a facet of identity to me. I saw both characters as worldly, sophisticated queer women who understand how fashion communicates their gender and power and sexuality. I'm a big fan of the late, great and impressively diverse shows "Suits" and "Pearson," and I will say, Gina Torres performs clothes like nobody else—and I think Adrianna would agree. Charlotte's wardrobe is loosely based on a lovely, stylish young woman I once knew, whose name will remain a secret. As to the outfits—who says I don't have some of those in my closet already?
Charlotte and Adrianna's geographic distance from each other, individual career goals and age difference all put strain on their relationship in ways that felt incredibly believable and organic. How did you balance all of these factors? Were any present right from the beginning, and did any arise later in the writing process?
That framing captures so much of what I was aiming for: a sexy, plausible-feeling contemporary romance in which real-life circumstances—and overcoming a variety of obstacles—make the ending feel earned in a love-conquers-all kind of way. Present for me from the start was the desire to be candid about the challenges of being a lesbian of color in the professional world. I think romance as a genre has room for that kind of honesty. I also wanted to write tender but tenacious main characters who would find support and humor among their excellent friends. As the book and the romance itself evolved, I tried to show the ways Charlotte and Adrianna become stronger together, each learning from the other, each giving some things up, bridging all sorts of distances until they both land in the same happily-ever-after place.
What's next for you?
Writing my debut romance has been a fantastic and fulfilling adventure so far! Now I'm just eager to see how it resonates with readers. Going forward, I have a few balls in the air, one of which is another contemporary romance between two very different, ambitious and complex women in a very different setting—but that's all I can say about that!