Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Not Your Everyday Erotic Romance: M. O'Keefe's EVERYTHING I LEFT UNSAID

Last week, on the Everafter Romance blog, Guest blogger Sara Horney noted her discontent with the current state of the erotic romance market. "Has Erotica Become the Beige Granny Pants of Romance?" Horney asked, suggesting that in their rush to bank in on the 50 Shades of Grey trend, publishers and authors are simply churning out cardboard cutouts of the same story, time and time again:

No longer was erotica the sexy, bright, red thong of my reading wardrobe, it became the beige granny panties. Just a boring same old-same old in which an Alpha billionaire/MC president/rockstar/DEA Agent/MMA fighter/sex club owner/shifter of some kind meets a naive ingenue/single mom/investigative journalist/uptight sex therapist/curvy entrepreneur and teaches her about the darker side/emotional healing power/feminist truth of pleasure. Over and over and over again. For me, erotica became the Groundhog Day of reading.

I both agree and disagree with Horney. I agree that what the mainstream publishers (and many indie writers, as well) keep putting out there are simply worn out retreads of an already painfully tedious storyline. But I disagree that this beaten-to-death storyline is not the only one you can find in the current realm of erotic romance (for example, give Ruthie Knox and Mary Ann Rivers' enchanted realism/erotic new adult novella The Dark Space a try if you're looking for something really different).

And even if an author does use the 50 Shades model as a starting point, it doesn't have to end up as pointless as a rerun of Groundhog Day. It just might turn into something as thought-provoking as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Take Molly O'Keefe, whose contemporary romances I've often praised on this blog. Her latest offering, though, looks and feels far different than her previously published novels. Its cover is dark, rather than colorful; its cover models are shot in broody black and white. O'Keefe has even gone so far as to do that strange erotica writer thing, abbreviating her first name, so that the cheerful, sweet, down-home "Molly" becomes the more enigmatic "M."

Unsurprisingly, Everything I Left Unsaid reads far differently than O'Keefe's previous books, at least as far as content goes. Hot phone sex with a stranger; a woman discovering the pleasure of her own sexuality; a wealthy alpha male who tells the heroine what to do; deep, dark secrets haunting each character's past—in this book, you can find all tropes of the repetitively boring erotic romance that Horney decries, in abundance.

What's different about O'Keefe's book, though, is that it doesn't dance blindly on the thin line between domineering hero and abusive hero, as so many erotic romances do. Horney describes her frustration thus: "Too many times have I given up on a novel because authors have written a male character that has crossed the line from Alpha male to plain old asshole male." Such books never acknowledge, never mind even recognize, that they've crossed this line, that their storylines, as Horney describes them, "read as more abusive than sexy."

In contrast, Everything I Left Unsaid puts the issue of abuse front and center. The novel opens with protagonist Annie arriving not at a swanky office building of her future boss/romantic interest, but at a North Carolina trailer park, where "escape smelled like a thick layer of Febreze over stale cigarette smoke." We gradually learn that Annie has taken the courageous step of fleeing from her physically abusive husband, dying her hair, driving hundreds of miles, and laying a trail of diversions to keep herself safe.

When a cell phone starts ringing from behind the cushions of the trailer she's rented, though, the appeasing ways her husband inculcated in her over five years of marriage, as well as her own friendly nature, lead Annie to answer it. And when she hears the caller's "angry sigh. The this is your fault sigh," she struggles with how to answer. But her actions on her own behalf give her the anger, and the drive, to fight the urge to appease:

And I had this visceral reaction, screwed into the marrow of my bones over the last five years, to do everything in my power and some things incredibly outside my power to appease the anger behind that sigh. To make it all okay.
     But those days were officially over.
     Sorry, Dylan. No one sighs like that at me. Not anymore. Not ever. (Kindle Loc 141).

Though Annie isn't wise about the ways of the big bad world (she lived isolated on a rural Oklahoma farm for all her life), she knows enough to give the caller a false name. Her choice—that of her "bold... confident. Embarrassingly sexy" cousin Layla, rather than her "utterly staid and uptight" self—suggests the person she's hoping to become. A self that she begins to explore with the caller, a man named Dylan.

Because unlike her husband, Dylan asks if she's okay, asks "Are you safe?", and refuses her offer to return his phone to him. As a result, Annie is more than tempted to trust Dylan with her secrets. But asking someone else to help her, to solve her problems for her, is not why she left her husband, a man whose offer to do the same she had accepted without thinking, to her lasting regret.

The previous renter of the trailer had used the phone to report in to Dylan about the doings of her neighbor, a surly older man named Ben. Annie offers to do the same, even without knowing why Dylan needs to know about the old man. And suddenly, abruptly, their conversation turns charged:

     "Are you offering to look in on him for me?"
     "That easy?"
     "That easy.
     "When's the last time you said no to someone?" he asked.
     "Why does it matter?"
     "I have a sense, Layla, that you give away your yeses without thinking."
     Oh, he was right. So damn right.
     "And you want my no's?"
     "I want something you don't give away."
     My knees buckled and I leaned back against the wood-paneled wall, feeling light-headed. How... how did we get here? What has happened to me? (215).

Annie tells Dylan not to call her again, fearful of the strong feelings his words, and his voice, evoke. But when Dylan sends her a phone recharger, and tells her he'll keep paying for the plan, she can't help but call him back with her thanks. And again, simple conversation turns immediately erotic.

A series of hot bouts of phone sex between inexperienced Annie and directing Dylan ensue. But this isn't just a story about a dominant guy teaching an innocent ingenue how to embrace her sexuality. It's also about how to figure out when, and where, to draw the lines. Is neighbor Ben simply a grouchy old man? Or a stone-cold killer? Is niceness a positive trait, or one that only leaves you open to exploitation and harm? Can a man be simultaneously controlling and kind? How little control does a victim have over her own life, and how much of her own behavior is self-deception, an act of complicity with her own abuse? And where is the line between brave and just plain crazy?

Since the book leaves us on a cliffhanger, none of these questions gets definitively answered. But by simply being willing to ask them, M. O'Keefe proves herself far more interested in women's empowerment than many a fellow rider on the 50 Shades erotic romance train.

Everything I Left Unsaid
Bantam, 2015

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