“I hated everything about DC,” says Beth Kelly, the narrator of Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls. Among the things Beth hates about the nation’s capital: summertime weather, helicopters buzzing overhead, carpeted Metro trains, the baby-faced staffers on the Hill in their brand-new suits, “thrilled with the fact that they’d accepted a salary of $23K to work for ten hours a day.” Beth’s is a committed New Yorker’s view: “I hated that so many women wore sneakers and socks with their suits while they commuted, as if it were still 1987,” she says. “I wanted to pull them aside and tell them that there was no need for this, that there were very comfortable ballet flats out there they could wear instead.”
When Beth, a Wisconsin transplant, met her future husband, Matt, they were both in their twenties and living in New York City. She was working at Vanity Fair as an editorial assistant for “a theatrical and judgy gay man, who loved talking about whatever diet he was on and how fat and gross everyone else was.” Matt, a lawyer with his own apartment, impressed her (and her girlfriends) with his maturity, good looks, and genuine kindness.
When, after a few weeks of dating, Matt tells Beth his dream of running for political office, she finds it endearing. “Of course, to be fair, everything about him delighted me at that point—he could’ve told me he wanted to be a clown and I would have found it charming,” she admits. The intensity of Matt’s dream doesn’t sink in until his stint as an Obama campaign worker leads to a permanent job in the White House counsel’s office. Recently laid off from Vanity Fair, Beth can’t muster a convincing case for staying in New York.
What it means to be married to a politico hits her with a thud at an Obama campaign reunion: “As we stood there that night, listening to another story about Iowa, I had a realization. All of the people there reminded me of high school student council members, the ones who fought for pizza lunches and dance themes with great passion. They were all so eager. (And borderline annoying.) Was Matt one of them? Had I never noticed? Had he always been this way or just become one of them when I wasn’t paying attention?”
Beth’s attitude toward D.C. begins to change when she meets Ashleigh and Jimmy Dillon, another young couple new to town. Ashleigh is an easygoing Texas belle who imprints on Beth immediately and wholeheartedly. Jimmy is handsome and charismatic, and he has a way of finding himself in the right place at the right time, politically speaking, thanks to his magnetic personality, family connections, or both. As a child, Jimmy moved all over the world with his father, a powerful attorney, but claims Texas as home. (“You realize you’re basically W, right?” Beth’s friend Colleen tells him. “You’re from Texas, but you’re not really from Texas.”) The couples quickly become inseparable, a years-long relationship that will lead Beth and Matt to a point of reckoning in their own relationship and professional lives.
The Hopefuls is the story of a marriage—happy, but untested until it’s time to make complicated decisions about the future. It’s a story about the strangeness of Washington, D.C., its claustrophobic smallness and its unique demographic composition. It’s also a novel about the hard work, raw talent, cynicism, and idealism required to feed ambition and achieve political success—and an examination of how marginalizing it can be to lack that ambition. The Hopefuls is a thoughtful—and juicy—summer pick for politically-engaged beach readers.
Kathryn Justice Leache lives Memphis, her hometown. Her life among books has included work as a librarian and stints as a bookseller at Square Books and The Booksellers at Laurelwood. She will soon be working at Novel, an independent bookstore opening in summer 2017 in Memphis.