Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In Need of Help, Not Saving: Victoria Dahl's FLIRTING WITH DISASTER

A man with a compulsion to help others meets a woman who has been betrayed in the past: it's one of the most common romantic pairings in the contemporary romance genre. In the hands of a conventional writer, the plot in which two such lovers are placed usually goes something like this: Put that woman in a little danger. Have her insist to all and sundry, including the man, that she can take care of herself. Have that man prove himself worthy of her trust by protecting her from said danger anyways.

Give that same couple to a writer whose been steeped in feminism, though, and the story is likely to come out rather differently...

Painter Isabelle West, the protagonist of Victoria Dahl's contemporary Flirting with Disaster, loves the seclusion she's found living outside of Jackson, Wyoming. No nosy neighbors, no annoying door-to-door salespeople, and, best of all, no friendly neighborhood cops. Brought up by a cop turned cop-killer, dumped by fiancé son-of-a-cop fearful of her father's bad rep, and threatened by a series of officers she once thought of as friends when it turns out her father's crime might be just the tip of the iceberg in a much larger corruption scandal, Isabelle will be only too glad if she never comes face to face with an officer of the law again. Especially since she's still a "person of interest" in her father's case, and she's changed her name to hide from the FBI, the Chicago cops, and her prison-fleeing felon of a father.

So when U. S. Marshall Tom Duncan comes knocking on her door, trying to dish out a story about running a protection detail for the judge who owns the property behind hers, it's no surprise that Isabelle is more than a little suspicious. Even though "her attraction to men in that field [law enforcement] had been hard-wired into her from an early age," Isabelle is wary of allowing let her libido take charge. But at heart, Isabelle is a risk-taker, and when Tom's story checks out, and her small circle of female friends encourages her to take advantage of their obvious mutual attraction, Isabelle decides to go for it. (FYI, the book's cover suggests the two are white, although no mention of their race is made in the novel).

Tom initially finds his attention caught by Isabelle's suspicious behavior, and does some background checking on her just to be sure she's not a threat. But by the time he's discovered that Isabelle West did not exist before 2002, he's also been caught by the "prickly and proud and smart and self-contained" artist, a bold, outspoken, self-confident woman who isn't shy about expressing her interest in sex. And in Tom. And in sex and Tom in the same sentence, in the same bed. Even if she's a free spirit and he's a by-the-book lawman.

Tom's fellow Marshall, Mary, who suspects that Tom is getting overly involved with Isabelle, jokingly asks "How's your savior complex coming?... You do have a tendency to date women who are a... bit of a mess." Tom doesn't take it as a joke; instead, he argues "Isabelle isn't a mess. She needs help." Though Mary claims "Semantics," Tom, and the narrative, insist that it's not just semantics; there's an important difference. Tom doesn't need to be the strong, self-assured Isabelle's savior. But everyone, including independent Isabelle, can use a helping hand upon occasion. Understanding this is the difference between being an arrogant knight-in-shining-armor and being a man who can treat a woman as an equal.

I'll leave it to you to pick up a copy of Flirting with Disaster and find out how Isabelle and Tom's relationship plays out. But I did want to share a few choice quotes from the book, to show just how pleasant it is to read a romance whose heroine, and whose writer, takes feminist ideas for granted:

Isabelle thinking about aging:

But Isabelle had discovered that freedom was the best thing about getting older. She'd felt a touch of it when she's turned thirty. She'd suddenly felt less like a bit kid blindly feeling her way through the world and more like an adult. Then at thirty-five she'd realized she was at that age when so many women really started to worry. That they were too old now. That they hadn't married or had children. That this was their last chance to really live. Isabelle didn't feel as though this was her last chance. She felt as though she was finally free. Capable. Happy with herself. Comfortable with her own body. And allowed to say anything she wanted to out loud, even if it made a grown man blushed. Maybe specially if it did. She loved it. She couldn't wait to be forty. She was going to own that shit. And then at fifty, when strangers would stop hinting that it was time to settle down and have some babies, and just start looking at her with pity? That would be glorious. So she grinned at Tom Duncan and took an extra-large piece of pie and didn't bother stifling her moan of pleasure at the taste. (Loc 359)

When Tom asks whether her friend Jill, and then she herself, like living alone, Isabelle calls him on his unthinking sexism:

    "You're not wearing a wedding ring. Do you live alone?"
     "No wife or kids Are you depressed about it? Are you pining away?"
     His lips twitched at the idea of sitting in the window of his apartment, staring yearningly into the night, like a sappy scene from a bad movie. "No. But I travel quite a bit."
     "Well, I don't travel, but I'm not lonely. I have my work, my friends and my home. And internet porn. Life is good.
     Tom tripped over a snowdrift and nearly fell flat on his face. Isabelle laughed as he dusted snow off his knee. So much for her reserve. "If you said that to shock me, it worked," he said.
     "I said it because it's true." She grinned over her shoulder as he kept moving. "Try to keep up."(399)

After Tom plays guard-duty for the judge's daughter during a girls-night-in at Isabelle's:

     "I have to admit, it was a lot more fun than any night out with the guys. I'm not sure my brain will recover from all the new things I learned, though. You girls are filthy. Like, really filthy."
     "I know. It's because we have to save it up. We can't be honest about stuff in front of men because so many of them are creeps. When it's just us and we don't have to be on guard against men bothering us... God. It's so much fun."
     "Should I be insulted that I don't count as a man?"
     "No." She dropped onto the couch and patted the seat beside her. "You should be flattered that all of us felt comfortable around you." (1307)

After Tom and Isabelle have had sex, and Tom is feeling guilty for sleeping with a woman whom he's investigating:

     "Please tell me you're not one of those guys who needs the girl to be in love or it's dirty. Because then I'll have to remind you that you throughly enjoyed it all."
     "That's definitely not it. And I hope you haven't met any  guys like that."
     "We've all met guys like that." (1452)

Isabelle telling Tom about her first boyfriend:

     "He was an incredible ass. He liked that I was a virgin. Liked that I waited for him. He talked shit about other girls who put out, and it made me feel special. So I suppose I was an ass, too." (1456)

And this, sharing confidences after sex:

     "You just seem really... comfortable. With sex. With yourself. It's attractive."
     "It's really hard for a woman to like sex."
     "Because guys are terrible at it?"
     "No," she laughed. "Even aside from that. We're taught from day one that we're supposed to resist it. That we'll eventually be talked into it. That we don't want it as much, and we definitely don't need it. Not like boys do. I believed that. So much so that I wasn't the least concerned that I'd never had an orgasm. Because lots of women don't.... Can you imagine that? I mean really. Think about that. What if you had sex your whole life and never came? .... But then when I figured out how much I liked sex and exactly how I liked it... Jesus, that's even more confusing. To be a woman and like sex. To want things just as much as the man does and still be treated as if you've given something away. It's no wonder women hit their sexual peak later in life. It takes decades to find the confidence to have good sex."
     Tom was frowning harder now. "How so?"
     She shook her head. "Some men can make it hard to feel good about it afterward, no matter how much you liked it. Men say things like 'I got some,' or 'She put out,' or whatever that dialogue is. Girls are stupid cows giving the milk away for free. And suddenly you feel like you were conquered."
     "Oh." Tom had never heard anything like that before.
     "It takes a lot of self-possession to know that a man's attitude doesn't change what you wanted. It doesn't change what you got out of it." (1818)

Re the above quote: is that how you were brought up to think about sex? Is it still as true today as it was for women of my generation (growing up in the 1970s and 80s)?

The first review I wrote for RNFF was of Victoria Dahl's Start Me Up. It's a true pleasure to watch as Dahl's writing continues to push the genre in new, decidedly feminist directions.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Wyoming cabin: Joanne Rossman
Semantics graphic: Never Not Thinking blog
Girls Night In: Dar Dar's Gifts
Have Sex, Hate Sexism card: Redbubble.com

Flirting with Disaster
HQN, 2015


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  2. When it's just us and we don't have to be on guard against men bothering us... God. It's so much fun."
    "Should I be insulted that I don't count as a man?"
    "No." She dropped onto the couch and patted the seat beside her. "You should be flattered that all of us felt comfortable around you." (1307)

    -- Do you think that if the gender roles were reverse -- if a women were told that she "didn't count as a woman" -- she would be flattered?

  3. No one's answered the question? It's changed some, but the years you mention weren't necessarily as sex-negative as you seem to assume. I felt confident about expressing myself sexually, and the wider culture didn't make much of an impact on that. I didn't have a lot of partners, was friends with most of them beforehand, was exclusive with one guy for a year, and was so focused on my studies (and along with my partners lived in situations with little privacy) that I didn't have sex more often than every other week or so -- so it was hard to slot me into the "slut" paradigm. But students at my university (a state school with one frat sans house or building) never seemed to care anyway, and there was no open culture of conquest or female objectification ..

    -lawless523 .