Filthy-Gorgeous

by Wardog

Wardog has finally found an erotic novel worth reading with Megan Hart's Dirty.
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I'm a bit embarrassed to be reviewing a self-proclaimed "erotic novel" on Ferretbrain because it reveals a bit more about my reading habits than I'm entirely comfortable revealing in a place my mother (or my boyfriend's mother) might see it. But Megan Hart's Dirty is a genuinely remarkable book and considering I reviewed Spoodge, I mean, Unmasked: An Erotic Novel of the Phantom of the Opera without a qualm, I think a few words of praise is the least I owe a book like Dirty.

A quick Google search has indicated that Dirty is a love-it-or-hate-it read, which is partly what led me to pick it up in the first place. As I said above, it self-identifies as an erotic novel (it's published as part of Harlequin's 'Spice' range for them as care about imprints - "sexual and sensual stories for discerning women" apparently), but it's almost unclassifiable: there's a fair quantity of sexual content but it's not necessarily conventionally erotic, it's a love story but it's not necessarily conventionally romantic, and it's about self-acceptance and, perhaps, a sort of healing that nevertheless eschews an easy happy ending. Look, it's a bloody intense and not always an easy read but it's certainly one of the most intriguing, affecting and courageous books I've encountered in a long time. Oh wait. I've read nothing but a string of awesome books recently. Well, it doesn't break the trend.

Dirty is, at its core, a very simple story. Elle Kavanagh is an accountant who wears only black and white, lives alone, has no friends, counts things as a coping mechanism and regularly engages in anonymous, one-off sex with strangers to whom she gives nothing of herself, not even her real name. The book opens when she meets Dan Stewart in a candy store: "this was not a children's candy store, mind you — this was the kind of place you went to buy expensive imported chocolates truffles for your boss's wife because you felt guilty for having sex with him when you were both at a conference in Milwaukee. Hypothetically speaking, of course". They end up having a drink together. Dan walks her home but that's it. After weeks of thinking about him, she encounters him by chance at a club and so their "acquaintance" begins. I say "acquaintance" carefully because Elle won't date and doesn't do relationships so what they end up having is a series of sexual "appointments" that gradually and painfully and beautifully evolve into intimacy. Needless to say, Elle has extremely traumatic sexual abuse (sorry, that's badly phrased, as if you get non-traumatic sexual abuse) in her past that has completely stunted her emotional growth: Dirty essentially charts her journey towards self-acceptance, forgiveness and love. With sex.

Because of this nothing much happens in Dirty. There are no huge revelations or big misunderstandings or, even, many of the usual romantic tropes and incidents. But Elle's emotional and psychological development over the course of the book is profound and deeply moving. Her relationship with Dan is similarly small scale: its monuments and milestones are when she stays the night with him, or when she allows him to kiss her on the lips, and when they have unprotected sex. It's a very sexual relationship - obviously - but that, too, makes sense because much Elle's broken sense of self is wrapped up, in a complicated way, with her sexual identity.
Sex had been a choice I made to ease an ache inside. I knew it. I knew why I did it. I knew why I looked like a librarian and acted like a whore.

Until now it hadn’t mattered. I’d met men who made me laugh, who made me sigh, even a few, very few, who’d made me come. Until now I had never met one I couldn’t forget.

And despite its difficulties, by the end of the book, there is no doubt that it is a mature and functional relationship. The book does not end with marriage and kids or promises of forevers or anything like this. I won't spoil it but, trust me, when I say it's so much better.

There's a lot that's probably quite controversial in this book but I thought it was beautifully judged. Let's break it down:

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse plots tend to make me run a mile. They're generally really badly handled, or, as I have whinged previously, a kind of weird shorthand for generically female problems that helpfully go away when it's convenient for them to do so. Also, let's face it, it's a fucking harrowing thing to read about. However, it's delicately and maturely approached in Dirty and I found I didn't mind. It's only romanticised in the sense that she is able to move beyond it, whereas obviously many people can't, but then Dirty is a fantasy, that even if it does not offer us the typical HEA ending, it does offer us hope and happiness, and Elle's healing process never falls prey to cheap devices. Elle's reactions and responses to her abuse are psychologically plausible and although it means her behaviour is often not entirely sympathetic it is always understandable. Equally, I found the portrayal of Elle quite refreshing. I'm generalising horribly here but most of the representations of sexual abuse victims in romantic fiction that I've encountered have tended to go down the more accessible "anti-sex" route, as if this somehow a more "acceptable" response or something.

The Style

Dirty is written in the first person, which is quite rare for romances (at least, the ones I read, but then the romances I read tend to feature tight breeches and bosoms so I suppose that's fair enough). I've heard people complain it's bland, or monotone or they don't learn enough about what the hero is thinking / getting out of all this (more on this later). But Dirty is very much Elle's story and because she's quite a difficult person to like (she keeps the reader at an emotional distance, as much as anyone else) it's imperative to stay inside her head or lose her entirely. Elle's narrative is, I suppose, spare might be an appropriate word. But, truthfully, I really loved it. It suited her, and the prose is clean and crisp and a pleasure to read. It's not what you might call lush or lyrical, but in its understated way it's not devoid of beauty.

This is one of my favourite passages. I think it's a genuinely lovely moment of intimacy from a person who presents herself as incapable of giving it. It's not what you'd instinctively think of as "romantic" but it's such a personal moment of connection that, in the most organic and natural sense, it becomes romantic. Dan has just learned that Elle studied astronomy when she was younger. Forgive the long quote but it's necessary for you to get a measure of the book.
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.

Obviously the context helps a lot but this scene is emblematic of the way Dan and Elle's relationship develops over the course of the book. I love the way it is both rich in small details - there's a tactility here which is very intense - but simultaneously almost impressionistic: it's just sparsely-related conversation and a succession of light touches.

This stylistic restraint applies equally to the sex scenes, of which there are many. Again, given how unsatisfying (excuse the term) and unrealistic I find most erotica, the straightforward clarity of the writing in Dirty is something I very much appreciated. There's also a lovely and rare honesty in it which, if you ask me, only contributes to its effectiveness:
His teeth grazed my neck. His mouth moved to my shoulder, and he muffled his outcry against my shirt. His cock jerked inside me, and he thrust once more, hard enough to smack my forehead against the tile wall. It hurt but it made me laugh. Sex in real life is never like in the movies. The choregraphy's always off.

The C Words

So, the age-old debate of what to call the Part A and Slot B continues. Dirty goes for "cock" and "cunt" and "clit" and I say hurrah. I am particularly inclined to applaud cunt, in the absence in any other sensible terms for female genitalia. I know cunt tends to be unpopular because it sounds harsh and has had centuries of bad press but, seriously ladies, what else are we gonna call it? Vagina is far too clinical. Snatch is way worse than cunt (it's a horrible word). Twat, similarly, doesn't work for me. Slit doesn't sound even remotely welcoming, and I think we'd all like to think of our Slot Bs being somewhere Part A would like to go. Pussy is ... no ... just no ... pussy is soft and fluffy, and a domestic pet. Yes, it's probably a sign of patriarchal linguistic oppression or whatever but, at the risk of sounding all 1970s, I reckon it's probably time we just picked the best of a bad lot and stopped tying ourselves into linguistic knots over our girlbits.

But, yes, I was really happy with Dirty's no nonsense approach.

A spade is a spade, and a cunt is a cunt.

Dan

The hero of Dirty has received a bit of criticism as well - though heaven knows why, because I think he's fantastic. Possibly I'm just biased because he's called "Dan". It's true he comes to the reader spare on detail but that's because the book is entirely told from Elle's perspective and, for a large part of it, she isn't interested in emotionally connecting to him. There is, however, just enough of him to make him perhaps the most perfect male fantasy I think I have ever encountered in fiction. Seriously. I want this man, or at least what he represents. Mr Darcy go home.

Although he makes just enough mistakes to be human, for the most part he is everything Elle needs him to be when she needs him to be it: he is persistent but not stalkerish, strong but not engulfingly dominant, sensitive but not wet, vulnerable but not insecure, tender, sexy, funny, whimsical and really damn good in bed. He is, in many ways, a kind of everyman or rather an everyman of any woman's fantasies. He is not a romance novel hero, and I absolutely adored that about him. He has no striking beauty, nor an enormous wang, he's not an imposing giant with a grip like steel bands, he's just a not-too-tall guy with blue-green eyes and hair the colour of wet sand.

His sexuality is perfectly judged: although he's hot stuff he's not supernaturally hot-stuff. He doesn't make Elle come eighty-nine times on the trot. He doesn't plough her furrow for seven days without rest or a change in rhythm. But he is imaginative and sweet and just dominant enough to be interesting. Best of all, although he is often the one who takes control in the bedroom (because, initially at least, Elle prefers it), it never extends outside that: he never judges her for her desires, or her behaviour. In essence: a man who'll fuck you in a bathroom when you're both hot for it but not think any less of you after. A. Perfect. Man.

Because the book is so absolutely rooted in Elle, we never really get to know what he sees in her beyond what he tells her. I understand that this could be a problem for some romance readers as we are accustomed to getting the story from both ends. But I genuinely didn't find it problematic in Dirty - as I keep saying, it's Elle's experiences and Elle's story, and any act of identification on the part of reader must be with her. Like Elle, we must learn to trust Dan because another's love is never something we can, really, empirically know. It is just something we believe in. If we dare.

Conclusion

I know this might sound a strange thing to say about an erotic novel but I don't really feel capable of evaluating its eroticism. I think the best thing I can say for it is that it's the closest thing I've discovered to something that isn't either vulgar or ludicrous. Eroticism aside, Dirty is a courageous and moving book and I heartily recommend you read it, if you're into this kind of thing.


Themes: Books
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Comments (go to latest)
Nathalie H at 17:55 on 2009-02-16
That sounds so good I'm actually going to buy it! Next I want to know what you think of Wetlands by Charlotte Roche (which I haven't bought either yet but will).


As for the Great Cunt Debate, I wholeheartedly subscribe to this theory:
http://urbanfeminist.blogspot.com/2007/02/what-do-you-call-yours.html
Nathalie H at 21:20 on 2009-05-13
Oh man, I read this and it was fantastic! I think I agree with everything you've written here - erotica aside, it was a really great book.
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