Friday, April 17, 2015

Love in the House

By an odd chance of reading fate, I happened to read two housekeeper/house owner romances last week, one right after the other: Diane Hernandez's contemporary erotic, The Naked Chef, and Grace Burrowes' historical, Worth: Lord of Reckoning. Workplace romances, particularly when one member of the romantic pair is higher up in the power hierarchy than the other, are particularly difficult to pull off. A writer has to walk a narrow line, creating sexual tension and fizz while avoiding anything that smacks of coercion or harassment. Reading these two books, one of which I found appealing, the other of which I found quite troubling, made me think harder about what works, and doesn't work, in a workplace romance, particularly one in a domestic rather than an office setting.

The first difference that I noticed between Burrowes' historical and Hernandez's contemporary was how each positions her heroine in terms of personal and job power. When we're first introduced to Burrowes' heroine, Jacaranda Wyeth, she has already spent five years in her post as housekeeper on the country estate of solicitor Worth Kettering. She is more than well-regarded there; the butler, cook, groundskeeper, and stablemaster all consult with her, and more often than not are directed by her ideas and wishes. Even though she is the housekeeper, Jacaranada has power at the Kettering estate, especially since its city-dwelling owner hasn't ever visited in all the time she's worked there.

In contrast, we are introduced to chef Reggie Morales at the nadir of her professional life: in the midst of closing down her less-than-prosperous Studio City CA restaurant, what was once a starry dream now an all-too-real failure. Her lawyer, rather than Reggie, has used his contacts to find her a new job, cooking for Tracy Thompson, a high-powered Hollywood agent and his ne'er-do-well famous actor brother Tanner. Oh, and by the way, would she live in their house 24/7 to keep an eye on Tanner? And do the chores the housekeeper he just fired for being an illegal immigrant used to do, Tracy asks? Reggie's a chef—"I really don't want to clean toilets and do laundry. I have a bachelor's in dietetics," she protests (Kindle LOC 150)—but ends up capitulating to Tracy and apologizing for her touchiness: "I can clean and do laundry. It's not a big deal, I'm just overly sensitive today" (164). Unlike Jacaranda, Reggie is positioned in a subservient position, both professionally and personally. That Reggie is Latina, and her employer is white, only complicates the power dynamics of this employee/employer relationship.

Both Worth and Tracy are attracted to their employees, and push their housekeepers to engage in amorous relations with them, even after both women say no. Why, then, did one protagonist's actions seem more palatable than the other's? I think it has to do with the point of view through which each author chooses to tell her story. Hernandez uses the first person, with the entire story told from Reggie's POV, while Burrowes uses the third person, switching back and forth between Jacaranda and Worth, the book's male lead. In Worth, we are allowed inside Worth's head, and are reassured by his thoughts about Jacaranda. He's attracted to her, yes, even wants to make her his mistress. But he expresses no desire to harm her, to force her to succumb to his sexual advances. Nor does he ever consider threatening her job to persuade her to consent. The switching point of view acts as reassurance against the doubts Worth's actions in pursuing Jacaranda, in teasing and flirting even after Jacaranda tells him no, might have raised if we had only seen them through her eyes.

Reggie's first-person narration offers us no such reassurance. In a scene where Reggie returns from her high-school reunion with her escort, Tanner, older brother Tracy expresses his jealousy through actions, actions that we see only through Reggie's eyes: "He forced me into the casita and shut the door" (1059); "I tried to push him away, but he wouldn't budge"(1069); "he captured my head in his hands and pushed me up against the door" (1069); "he found it effortless to remove my clothes" (1069). Where is the line here between forceful seduction and assault? Ultimately, Reggie welcomes Tracy's advances in this scene, but in its opening moments, without knowing Tracy's thoughts or intentions, it was difficult for me to feel entirely comfortable that Tracy understands the line between sexy forcefulness and just plain force.

Both Jacaranda and Reggie say "no" at different times to the seductions of their would-be partners. Even though he wants to have sex with her, Worth reassures Jacaranda on several occasions that he respects a woman's right to choose the degree of sexual intimacy with which she is comfortable: "I do not paw women, not any women, ever," he tells her when she upbraids (mistakenly) him for consorting with opera dancers" (page 86). Later, even though they are sleeping in the same bed (but without having sex), Worth reassures her: "I will never cross the lines you draw for us.... I'll push, I'll tease, I'll negotiate, and I'll dare, but you hold the reins, Jacaranda. You will always hold the reins" (220). Jacaranda knows this not only because of his words, but because of his actions: "He had the knack of asking permission with his mouth, of inviting with his tongue, and assuring with his big body" (91). Worth and Jacaranda discuss consent, not just once but at different points over the course of their relationship. And consent must be given by both partners in order for the taint of harassment or coercion to be avoided.

Consent is never a topic of discussion between Reggie and Tracy, only a demand. "I'm waiting, Reggie. Tell me what I need to hear," Tracy demands before the first time they have sex. But "I didn't have the strength to say no to the beautiful man. But I couldn't look at him, either" (1079). Tracy takes Reggie's sexual arousal as permission to forge further down the sexual path; only on the verge of penis entering vagina does Reggie finally grant overt consent: "I want to be inside you," says Tracy; "Yes, inside," Reggie answers (1088). Later, their sexual relationship edges in to BDSM territory, but without any talk of safe words or boundaries that we've grown accustomed to seeing in many erotic romances that include BDSM. Tracy spanks Reggie as punishment for being too bodily close to Tanner, not as part of a consensual game of pain. Reggie finds this a sexual turn-on, but it seems clear that Tracy was not doing it for that reason: "he groaned, surprised by my arousal," Reggie notes, after the slapping stops (1523).

How each writer constructs the relationship block—what keeps the lovers apart—also influenced my responses to each book. In Worth, Jacaranda is in some ways only masquerading as a housekeeper, and fears her lies of omission about her true family background make her unworthy (even as the reader realizes that it makes her only too worthy). Jacaranda thus has more social capital than her initial position as employee would suggest. Jacaranda's other reason for refusing Worth's offer to become his mistress, and later, to become his wife, is a gendered one—she feels a duty to that family she left behind. When her brothers, left in the lurch by a stepmother who has remarried, come and demand she return to the family abode, Jacaranda agrees. And again, Worth acknowledges that it is her decision, not his, to make. Luckily, though, with her competent managing ways, she has her birth family back in order in less than a chapter. Feminine duty to family is not to be shrugged off, the novel insists, but neither should it come second to a woman's happiness: "it is time I put my own house in order," Jacaranda informs her eldest brother when she's confident that all is on an even keel (349).

Reggie and Tracy's contretemps also stems from a family difficulty. When he hired her, Tracy had asked Reggie to try and find out why his brother Tanner was acting out. Reggie discovers Tanner's secret, but at Tanner's request, promises to keep the truth from Tracy. Eventually, Tanner's secret is outed, leaving Tracy more than a little enraged at both his brother and his lover (you have to read the book to find out why). In some of the most vile, sexist breakup language it's ever been my displeasure to read, Tracy reams Reggie out and then dumps her. That Tracy eventually repents, grovels, sneaks behind her back to contact her family members, and ultimately convinces Reggie to get back together seems less cause for celebration than for dismay, at least to this reader.

A heroine's degree of power; a narrative that gives a hero's POV, not just a heroine's; discussions between protagonists about consent; and a relationship block that can be resolved through mutual understanding rather than through manipulation and melodramatic plotting—these are the elements that made the troubling aspects of domestic workplace romance palatable in Burrowes' book, but deeply problematic in Hernandez's.


  1. Small correction: it's Diane Hernandez, not Dawn :)

    1. Thanks, Mark, for picking this up. I've fixed it...

  2. I just read another one that fits in the "workplace sexual harassment" section: The Duke of Dark Desires by Miranda Neville.

    1. Oh, yes, THE DUKE OF DARK DESIRES definitely fits into this workplace sexual harassment category. And more on the negative than the positive side, I thought. Did you?

  3. It's weird; when the home is the workplace, the work itself is so intimate that my usual "NOPE" button for employer/employee romance isn't as strong. I am much more turned off by office romances.

    I agree, though, that POV can go a long way toward making something squicky less uncomfortable (or to put it another way, take a scene from noncon to dubious or full consent). I would probably react the way you do to the two books you cover.


  4. I haven't read The Naked Chef (and am unlikely to now), but I do like Grace Burrowes quite a lot -- and for the reasons you delineate so nicely here. Her men are strong but never bullies; they adore women, but they also LIKE them. One always feels at the end of the book that the marriage will be equal and affectionate as well as sexy.

    Thanks for the blog entry!