Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Experimenting with Sex: Ruthie Knox's MADLY

I know I'm always in for a feminist treat whenever I pick up a romance by Ruthie Knox. And there are many feminist moments in Madly, the much-awaited second book in Knox's New York series (books in which midwestern women find themselves, and love, in the Big Apple). Some are familiar Knox themes: sisterly solidarity; the sexism that can often hide behind the facade of the "good guy"; the roles that family expects their daughters to play, even after said daughters may have long outgrown them. But the one I want to write about today has to do with sex.

A type of sex, I would argue, that is rarely found in any romance novel, whatever the subgenre. Rather than the seamlessly perfect, always orgasmic, almost effortless sex that is the staple of romance fiction, in Madly Ruthie Knox celebrates sex that is experimental, messy, and, most surprisingly, not entirely successful.

First, a bit about Madly's story. Allie Fredericks, whom readers of the first book in the series met as she was calling off her engagement to her long-time boyfriend on the day of the wedding, is Madly's heroine. Despite the embarrassment (not to mention the thousands of dollars in nonrefundable deposits for caterers, venue, flowers, etc.) of Allie's last-minute dash from the altar, Allie's former fianc√© still wants to be friends. But Allie has more to worry about than whether her "Good Guy" ex is turning into her own personal stalker; Allie's mother has run off to New York on the eve of her thirtieth wedding anniversary. Mrs. Fredericks has disappeared like this several times in the past, but she's always come home again, and no one in the family has ever explained why. But Allie, by hacking into her mother's email, knows the reason (or at least thinks she does). Though impetuous Allie has no plan for how to accomplish it, she knows that it is imperative that her mother come home: "Because I dumped Matt, and my sister moved to New York, and I can't bear for even one more thing in my life to change" (Kindle Loc 403).

But Allie's spying goes awry in Pulvermacher's Bar, where Mrs. Fredericks is scheduled to meet an old flame. To help her hide from her mother, Allie dragoons an unwary fellow bar patron, a man with all the looks and style of James Bond, but, unfortunately for Allie, the heart (and lifestyle) of a stolid conservative financial manager. Too distracted hiding behind the pinball machine tippling whiskey and exchanging confessions about failed relationships with British ex-pat Winston Chamberlain, Allie loses track of her mother—and has no other clue about how or where to find her.

Except that Winston knows the identity of the man with whom Allie's mom was meeting. But since said man is a client, a quite well-off client with some hefty secrets of his own, Winston is not quite willing to help Allie track him down. What he is willing to do is help her find a place to stay for the night. And to share cold camomile tea and "ruthless therapeutic confessions about our failed relationships" with chatty, charming Allie (758). Confessions which lead to flirting, which lead to a jokingly-made bucket list of 10 sex things they've never done and could do together. To help them get out of their respective romantic and sexual ruts.

The first items on their shared list—a thirty-second hug (the length a hug needs to be for oxycontin to release into your system, Allie informs Winston); blowing gently on a neck; spending an hour kissing, keeping one's hands over clothing—are not difficult to accomplish, even with a relative stranger. And as days pass while Allie continues her search for her mother, Winston is coming to feel "like someone she could know without the things that made him Winston infringing on anything that made her Allie" (821). But some of the later items on their mutual bucket list don't turn out to be quite as big a turn-on as the list-writers had originally imagined. Or at least, they don't upon first try.

Especially because, as Winston later realizes "everything he'd written on the list was there for a reason. Not simple, bucket-list, I've-never-done-this-before reasons, but deeper ones that had to do with how he'd been hurt in his marriage, or how he'd hurt his wife" (1635). And the same seems equally true for Allie. For example, during their attempt at item #4 ("everything but"):

     He licked the slickness of her inner thighs, then worked inward bit by bit, savoring her strange and peppery flavor and how soft, how incredibly and unforgivably soft, she felt against his tongue. And then a rougher texture near her clit that he rubbed his tongue over, slow drag after slow drag with two fingers inside her that made her fling her arms wide and clutch at handfuls of sheets and finally turn her face into the pillow and shove it up over her head, her eyes covered, her breath coming fast as she said, "I don't think I can."
     "Do you want me to stop?"
     "No!" The word came out like a sob, urgent and full of feeling.
     "Okay. But I'm going to need more direction."
     "You're doing perfect. You feel . . . there aren't words, but it's so good. I just don't know how to make myself come like this. There's nothing to focus on, or push against, and I'm on my back like a stupid turtle—"
     He kissed her hip bone. Her stomach. Worked his way up to her neck, behind her ear, her cheek, which was when he noticed her eyes were full of unshed tears.
     She was trembling.
     "I can stop," he said. "There's nothing we need to get to. We could put on clothes and watch a film."
     This made her eyes overflow, and she swiped at them with the back of her hand. "I don't want to watch a film, not right now, I just—I don't know what I want. I want to know how to come." She turned onto her side, facing him. He rested his hand at the dip of her waist.
     "I suspect you do know how."
     She hid her face in the bed. "I don't want to have to figure it out, I want to have been doing this for years already, and I'm angry that I wasn't." She lifted her face to him. "I'm so mad, Winston."
     "That seems reasonable. Would you like a cuddle?"
     "No. A cuddle is the last thing on earth I want."
     But she didn't look as angry as she wanted to sound. She looked terribly sad. So he put his arm out, and she tucked herself against his side, her face in his neck.  (1742)

While Allie and her ex had sex on a regular basis, it was never the kind of exploratory, experimental sex in which she and Winston are engaging. And as the two begin to discover, it's not just a lack of experience and familiarity with a particular sexual act that can stand in the way of achieving pleasure via its use, but also the emotional scars one carries with one from other past sexual experiences.

This scene doesn't end with "failure," though. Instead, after talking—not just about Allie's inability to reach orgasm, but also about some of the emotional baggage they're both shlepping around—Winston comes to understand that "it didn't hurt more to admit how much it hurt in the first place. It didn't hurt more to unravel. And once you'd unraveled, you could look around and think, a bit. Discover" (1805).

And try item #4 on the list again. Or skip #4 entirely, and go straight to #5.

But even after the success of #5, not every item on the remaining list goes smoothly for Allie and Winston. They try new things, back away from some, try things that went wrong again, just to see if things might be different at another moment in time, another emotional state of mind.

Experiment. Acknowledge your own feelings, and listen to the feelings of your partner. Be willing to try again, or try something different, if your first attempt goes awry. Or give it all up for a while and connect with your partner on another level than the sexual. These are the expectations Ruthie Knox asks romance readers to have about sex with a loving partner, expectations far different from the "I've never felt like this before with anyone else/this is so amazingly perfect" kind of physical/spiritual intermingling that has become the staple of the majority of sex scene in romance books not just of the past, but of the present, too.

Which is the better fodder for a romance reader's fantasy? First-time perfect? Or try and try again?

As for me, I'll take the Knox version, every time.

Photo credits:
Sex Bucket List: Pinterest
Love never fails: We Heart It
Fall Seven Times: Deborah Tindle

Loveswept, 2017


  1. Fantastic review.

  2. Thank you. I thought this was a simply wonderful book in every way. You do such a lovely job thinking about this aspect of the book. I have a list for everything and I keep a list for not great sex at first. Seduce the Sinner is one of my favorite books of all times and a large part of it is the crappy first sex they have. It happens for tons of reasons and the rest of the book is much much sexier for it. I love realism in intimacy. Thank you for such a wonderful blog.

    1. I'd love to see your list of "not great sex at first" romances. I have Jenny Crusie's FAKING IT on mine —what other books are on yours besides SEDUCE THE SINNER?

    2. Is that Hoyt's TO SEDUCE A SINNER?