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Charlotte Stein

REVIEW:  Beyond Repair by Charlotte Stein

REVIEW: Beyond Repair by Charlotte Stein

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Dear Ms. Stein:

I had trouble getting into this at first, because it seemed too obviously a romantic fantasy. By around three fourths of the way in, I concluded it was actually a love letter to romantic fantasy, saying in novella form, “no matter who you are, yes, it’s okay to want all these things, to dream of all these things.”

Very much a “cabin romance,” although not set in the woods, the story is intensely focused on just two people from the moment the agoraphobic Alice finds movie star Holden Stark od’d on her living room floor. It’s an abrupt beginning, and the story is abrupt in other ways: Alice succeeds in saving Holden (though rather appallingly, she puts his “career and his image” ahead of his life by not calling for help) and then he just… stays. It’s not that it’s not believable that this suicidally unhappy person would stay with a stranger; as he touchingly tells her, ‘I know you saved my life. I know you trusted me when I shouldn’t be trusted. I know you hugged me when I didn’t know I wanted to be hugged.’ I just would have liked to see the process a little more.

Alice has been though something huge, and she’s self-conscious about her disabilities and scars, as well as her lack of romantic experience. But she easily wows Holden with her humor, adorkable geekiness, and ability to show him to himself as someone other than a movie star:

‘Bernard Horganblaster,’ she said, and watched as his eyes slowly drifted closed. It was in the good way though, this time. The way that reminded her of blissful things, like biting into a bar of chocolate after a long period of near starvation.

‘Oh yeah. I could be a Bernard.’
‘And your friends call you Bernie.’
He gave her two gleeful, triumphant fists.
‘Yes! Yes, exactly like that. I have friends just like you, and you call me Bernie.’

[...]

‘…you kind of sound like you’d rather I stayed over here?’
‘Just ignore my voice. There’s a frightened nun living in my throat.’
He went to answer and had to stop to make room for the most awesome laugh. It was all surprised and full of joy, and it followed through into his words.
‘Who are you? I must be dreaming you. Did I die, and this is my reward?”

The balance of this story felt different from other Stein books, where the erotic tends to carry the romance. There are certainly some intense sex scenes; I enjoyed Alice’s realization that people who are gentle and considerate can still let themselves go in bed. “Dear God, she could have died over him saying, Fuck yeah, suck me off. It was too crude for the kind of guy she’d come to know.” But the sexual side of the story is really an outgrowth of their feelings, which are beautifully tender:

‘You don’t seem like a crazed fan for fuck’s sake. I wish you seemed more like a crazed fan because good goddamn am I a crazed fan of yours. For once in my life I’m the one who wants to write someone’s name on my fucking pencil case and it’s killing me, it’s absolutely killing me.’
Dear Lord in heaven, had he really just said that? She had to double check, just to be sure.
‘You want to write my name on your pencil case?’
‘I do, I really do,’ he said, tone so wistful she could hardly stand to hear it.

But I was tripped up, not only by how idyllic the fantasy is — their tastes match so completely, they would be shoo-ins on “The Newlywed Game” — but how precise:

‘Here, take my hand. I’ll pull you through like Morten Harket from A-ha in that music video where he takes her out of the real world and into a drawing,’ he said, which made it both worse and better all at the same time. Now she was close to swooning, but at least her power to make normal words was back.
‘Good God, I don’t think you could have said anything more perfect if you’d lived to be a hundred.’

That level of studied detail took me out of the world of the book.

The story is told in a limited deep third point-of-view that’s very similar to typical Stein stream-of-consciousness first person. As always, there’s a hilarious way with imagery:

She hadn’t taken into account that he didn’t have any clean clothes to put on. She’d somehow imagined him coming down in a fabulous outfit live from the red carpet, as though his skin spontaneously grew tuxedos.

I’m not sure how to evaluate Alice as a portrayal of a disabled person. (In addition to agoraphobia, she has some physical limitations.) Themes of brokenness and healing through love can be really iffy when coupled with actual disabilities. Definitely a plus: Alice’s physical issues don’t magically disappear during sex, and they find ways to work with them.

There was so much that was good here, and so much that didn’t quite work. Although I was touched by the overall message about believing in happy endings, I didn’t feel the story was developed enough for me to completely buy into the situation. And even with the whole healing-power-of-love thing, I’m uncertain about a happy ever after for a hermit and a movie star, much though I hope for one. Weighing everything, my grade is a fond B-.

Sincerely,

Willaful

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REVIEW:  Run to You by Charlotte Stein

REVIEW: Run to You by Charlotte Stein

Dear Ms. Stein:

I see what you did there!

I don’t think I’ve been so delighted by an erotic romance since — well, since the last time I read a Charlotte Stein book. This story takes the currently very popular set-up of wealthy, complicated, gorgeous BDSM aficionado and awkward, unawakened young woman, and puts the unique, wild Stein spin on it, for an exhilarating, hilarious, and extremely hot ride.

Run to You Charlotte SteinCuriosity about her absent friend Lucy drives Alissa to spy on an mysterious “assignation” in the most intimidating hotel she’s ever seen, full of women so classy, she can’t even breathe next to them:  “If I inhale her perfume I might die of wealth.” But the most intimidating thing in the hotel is a man she stumbles into, a large, intense man who’s Hugo Boss handsome, except not quite:

As though he maybe models for some obscure Eastern European equivalent of that scent — Hurgo Bsosch maybe. It’s there in the heavy-lidded look in his eyes, and the softness of his mouth. He doesn’t have a grim slacsh, of the kind that seems so popular these days.

He has a sensuous mouth, a decadent mouth, a mouth you want to plunge into and swim around in.

I love the flavor and personality Alissa’s descriptions have, expressing feelings so normal and relatable, yet taken to the nth degree. We’re not just told that the man — Janos — is exceptionally good looking. We’re not just told that he’s richly and immaculately dressed:

I’m amazed he even remembers our conversation, in-between million-pound meetings and making himself so slick and flawless. The suit alone must take a thousand years to put on, with all its buttons and extra bits and the always imminent threat of ruining something so expensive. I bet he has to lever it on with tweezers. I bet geishas roll it onto his body using their breasts.

A tentative… something starts up between Alissa and Janos, based largely on him seeming to intuitively understand desires she can’t bear to express or even admit to. But as they begin to have their own highly erotic “assignations,” Alissa realizes that Janos’s flawless perfection is also hiding conflicted needs and feelings, and the power dynamic between them begins to shift.

Despite the set-up, this uses very little of the ritualized kind of BDSM which focuses on roles and equipment and “training” and pain.  Even the negotiations between Janos and Alissa are part of the game they’re playing, which makes them part of the thrill:

‘Now tell me what you want to happen next.’

‘That isn’t fair.’

‘Of course it’s fair. If you want something, you have to ask.’ He walks around me again, only this time it’s more like pacing. It’s more like prowling. ‘I did say that you couldn’t expect me to do all the work. You have to offer me something at least, and really I’m requiring so little. Am I not?’

The answer is yes, obviously. Yes, you’re requiring so little. Words are barely anything when you really boil them down, and I know I could compress them even further. I could mash ‘fuck’ together with ‘me’ and he’d understand.

He would.

So why am I floundering? It’s simple, really.

‘All right,’ I say. ‘I’d like to touch you.’

There, I think. There.

And just as I do he strikes me down.

‘Liar,’ he says, like a fist rapping against glass.

A little harder and it will break.

A little gentler and everything will stay the same.

[...]

 

“Then perhaps we should play another little game,’ he says, in a way that suggests it isn’t going to be little, and it isn’t going to be a game. People don’t brace themselves over little games – but that’s what I’m doing. I’ve stiffened my shoulders and tightened my hands into fists, and when he finally speaks I close my eyes. It seems better to close my eyes for something like this: ‘If you tell me a lie about your desires and I catch you, you then have to do whatever it is you tried to conceal from me.’

‘And how would you go about catching me?’ I ask, in some vain attempt at injecting some bravado into this. I already know it’s the wrong thing to say, however. The second I speak that word aloud, my mind starts picturing him chasing me down hallways. In some of the scenarios he has giant metal hands or a big chainmail net, but in all of them I’m exactly the same way. I’m panicking and stumbling and completely unable to escape.

He’ll have no trouble, I think.

And apparently, we’re of one mind on this.

‘I don’t believe it will be so very difficult.’

‘I could lie about lying. I could tell you it isn’t true no matter how hard you pressed me, and then what would happen?’

‘Then the game comes apart.’ He picks at lint that isn’t there, somewhere around his right knee. ‘Though I trust that you won’t let that happen. No matter what you say, I think you like it when I guess.’

He’s right and wrong at the same time. Sometimes he speaks and my insides soar, but I always have an urge to punch him afterwards. I have an urge to punch him now, and it’s really only being eclipsed by the need to play this game until it reaches some probably nightmarish conclusion.

He’ll ask me if I’d like some anal sex, and I’ll lie and say no.

And then I’ll have to do it.

Oh, God, yes, I’ll have to do it.

The emphasis here is almost entirely on what’s happening internally, on the power of breaking down defenses, and the relief and release that comes from having those defenses broken down. Alissa embraces the thrill of being as filthy as she wants to be in scenes that are filled with heat and ferocious longing and unexpected tenderness — for both of them. There is some mild bondage with handcuffs and a brief mention of a safeword — which leads to the most stunning use of the safeword concept I’ve seen outside of Tiffany Reisz’s The Siren. That moment was like being hit with a lightning bolt.

Perhaps it was inevitable that everything after that would be something of a let down. The last quarter of the book is focused largely on Alissa’s insecurities and issues around trying to turn these sexual encounters into an actual relationship, and I thought it sagged a bit. It’s not that I’m disappointed with the romantic aspects of the story, but the narrative lost its intimate focus on Alissa and Janos together and no longer unfolded as naturally; time spent with another character — the missing Lucy — seemed wasted to me. Still, how much do I love a book that gives you everything you’d want in the powerful billionaire boyfriend story, without seeming tired, derivative, or incredibly creepy? An A- and a recommendation, that’s how much.

sincerely,

willaful

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