I’ve decided to start a new feature, in which I talk about books that I love. I haven’t just finished them — I feel like I need at least six months and one reread to make sure my initial fondness wasn’t due to hormones, illicit drugs, or being the first halfway decent read after a slew of crappola — but they’re still on my mind as examples of what I have enjoyed the most about this genre.
They’re books that you’d be mad to miss and sad to skip!
(I better not quit my day job for a career in marketing, huh?)
This post is actually an offshoot from another idea I had for a regular feature called “A Fangirl Rewrites Your Review”, wherein I take a negative review of a book I love and, um, revise it a little.
But I’m not going to talk about those other reviews. You want to know why? Because I’m not trying to hear that, as Positive K rapped lo these many years ago. See, I haven’t merely read this book. I’ve bonded with it. My love for this book has vaulted way beyond rational persuasion. It’s somewhere in that realm where fangirls rule and naysayers cower, where the streets are paved with fanfiction, and where Squeenglish is the only language spoken.
Comments are welcome, even by those who just don’t get it disagree. But please know that I descended from fangirland to write this post in an impenetrable bubble — kind of like the Popemobile, only sexier — of delirious reader satisfaction which you cannot possibly burst.
The first time I “read” this book, it was on audio. It’s amazing, actually, that I finished it, since the female narrator made the male protagonist, Dan, sound like a geriatric pervert. I didn’t realize it was an “erotic novel” when I purchased it and made the unfortunate choice of listening to it during my neighborhood walks. There’s nothing more surreal than pausing your iPod after a line like, “his cock was near perfect” to chat with Mrs. Kornfeld about whether we need more desserts for the neighborhood block party. But I digress.
I finished it, bought it in paperback, and read it again immediately. I’ve read it at least once since then. I love it. No, it’s not perfect, but neither are my kids, and I’m not dropping them off at Goodwill any time soon.
Dirty is a Harlequin Spice, a.k.a. “Baby Spice” to you erotica connoisseurs. And it’s true, there’s nothing fancy here — a man, a woman, and their unadorned bodies. No penis barbs, blood sucking, or nipple clamps.
But you know what? Megan Hart don’t need no stinkin’ penis barb to write a steamy sex scene, beetches. I didn’t snort derisively or roll my eyes even once while reading it. Dirty’s got hot dance floor sex, hot closet sex, hot bathroom sex, hot office sex, even hot share-our-relationship-with-a-studly-young-man sex.
It takes skill to write those scenes in an interesting yet nonridiculous way. And for me personally, a string of sex acts for the sake of getting the reader off is just boring. Romances of yore are criticized for the “purple prose” in which erotic encounters were sheathed😉. But, honestly, I don’t know how much better we’re doing with the anatomical, artless stuff we’ve got going on today.
What I loved about Dirty (brace yourself for a completely unoriginal claim) was that the sensual scenes were not only really well written — an unusual blend of frank, but not crude, language coupled with an awareness of the transcendent power of sex — but they moved the romance along, revealing things about the characters, and providing opportunities for them to work through their issues and grow closer. The sex scenes were racy, sure, but they were necessary, because, as a victim of incestuous sexual abuse, Elle’s sexuality is wrapped up in a very complicated and problematic way with her identity.
Sexual abuse victims are often portrayed as anti-sex, but that’s only one of a wide range of possible coping strategies. Elle’s tendency towards a lot of nameless faceless sex is actually quite common among survivors of sexual abuse, whose boundaries are as likely to be missing as they are to be heavily armored.
I was very invested in Elle from the start, and I felt that Elle’s gradual emergence from a very stuck place — her emotional development, like so many survivors of sexual abuse, was stunted at the age of the abuse — was touching and believable. (Even the references to The Little Prince were tolerable for me on those grounds.) Because of her sexual history, it’s significant when Elle stays the night with Dan, when she allows Dan to kiss her on the mouth, when they have unprotected sex, just as it is when he meets her family and friends.
And Elle knows this, which is why every time Dan makes progress, she pushes back. It’s unusual for a romance to generate any real tension in me around whether true love will win out, but this one did. I really thought Elle was going to blow it more than once.
Here’s how Elle views things the first time Dan convinces her not to take off:
How can I explain how he made me feel? Even now, looking back, I can remember everything about that moment. The feeling of his hands on me. The scent of him, cologne and sex. The way his mouth curved at the corners and the way the first hint of stubble glinted on his cheeks. I hold a perfect picture of him in my mind. Dan in that moment. The moment he convinced me to stay.
I am aware that there’s been some criticism of Dan, and I won’t tolerate it. True, we learn very little about him, and not just because the tale is told in Elle’s voice. Also, I admit, it’s very unusual to have the combination of qualities Dan possesses, even in Romanceland. He’s good looking, successful, incredibly charming, endlessly patient, selfless, funny, sweet and fun … but, when it comes to sex, he’s confident, accomplished, and adventurous with borderline dominant tendencies. (He reminds me of that classic line from the Usher/Ludacris collaboration, “Yeah”: “I want a lady on the streets but a freak in the bed.”)
But let’s recall that Dan did have a few less than perfect moments. He takes Elle to a reunion to make an old flame jealous, and he dates instrumentally when Elle dumps him — neither behavior is exactly the high moral ground. More to the point, I don’t think anyone less perfect than Dan could have managed to reach Elle, and even he almost failed.
Some readers have wondered why Dan doesn’t give up on Elle, given that she’s distant, rude, and unwilling to commit. Well, it made perfect sense to me. For one thing, I have seen many a young man, confident and careless with women, smugly sailing the high sexual seas, suddenly run aground chasing the one woman mysteriously immune to his charms. For another, Elle is a catch: sexy, smart, successful, independent. Besides, this is — if not a romance strictly — a novel in a Harlequin series geared to romance readers, and what’s more romantic than an inexplicably powerful love that doesn’t bail out when the going gets tough?
Dan. You can have your lust-oozing Fabio lookalike with his tree trunk legs and appendage as big as the heroine’s wrist. Me? I will take the sensitive Jewish boy in the Brooks Brothers suit with the hidden libidinal depths every time.
Oops. Sorry. Where was I?
You know what one of the problems I have with contemporaries these days is? They don’t feel contemporary at all. This is one area where romance could learn something from chick lit (the only area, but still). Here’s one example: all those novels that feature a heroine in her twenties who agonizes over how to balance career and motherhood before she’s even married. They all seem like my mother’s romances, or what my mother’s romances would have been if she wasn’t reading Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer. (You want to know when a woman agonizes over how to balance career and motherhood? When the baby — usually kid number 2 — is vomiting on her, she’s late for a meeting, her husband is in Akron on business, and her older child’s school has just called to say she forgot to pack his lunch, again.)
Dirty felt very modern to me. Elle’s career wasn’t a focus of the plot. Dan’s Jewishness was not a focus of the plot. Elle’s analytical, critical and ironic distance from Dan and from the concept of love as necessary also feels, while very rooted in Elle’s personal history, very au courant.
Elle wants so badly to dismiss Dan that she often reflects that this or that comment or gesture from any other man would have been reason enough to dump his ass. The fact that a statement like “I’ve known you forever, haven’t I?” when they barely know each other’s names doesn’t send Elle running for the hills speaks volumes. Sure, it’s nice when romances proceed in an orderly fashion: friends … dating … getting to know each other … love. But that wouldn’t have worked for Elle. Elle needed a deep and inarticulable attraction to a stranger in order to draw her in. She can — and does — tell herself it’s only the sex until it’s too late to escape.
Here’s a snippet that’s very typical of their relationship, and of what I love about this book. They are looking at the night sky and Elle has just explained to Dan that she studied astronomy when she was younger to count the stars. The reader knows that Elle has an obsession with numbers, one of her post traumatic stress coping mechanisms.
We stood, quiet for a few moments. His thumbs traced repetitive lines on the fabric over my stomach. His lips pressed the skin of my shoulder.
“Do you ever miss it?”
“Every time I look at the stars,” I told him.
“Did you ever figure out how many there are?”
I turned my head to look at him. “No. Nobody can count them. They’re infinite.”
“So…you gave up?”
I frowned, pulling out of his arms a little. “Abandoning a task that is futile and pointless is not giving up.”
He didn’t let me get far before tugging me back against him. “I know.”
“So then why did you say that?”
I felt the lift and drop of his shoulders as he shrugged, and the shift of his lips on my shoulder as he smiled. “I wanted to see what you’d say.”
I said nothing.
“So how long did it take you to decide it was a futile and pointless task?”
I pulled away again to look at him. “Who says I have?”
We studied each other under the light of the stars. Then I looked away, back up to the sky. Dan looked up too, holding my hand, and we stared together at the night.
“I didn’t give up,” I said after a moment.
Dan squeezed my hand. “I’m glad.”
“Me too” I said, and squeezed back.
I was rooting for them every minute, willing Elle not to let this great guy go and willing Dan not to stop searching for the wounded soul beneath the hard shell.
This book is romantic, sexy, heartbreaking, tough, very unusual, and beautifully written in a kind of spare prose style I really happen to enjoy.
Dirty. You’d be mad to miss it, sad to skip it!