Dear Ms. Hart,
Elle Kavanagh wears only black and white. She counts things — not just money at her prestigious accounting job, but also stars, marbles, ceiling tiles. She buys her boss’s wife candy to assuage her guilt for sleeping with him years before. She has been celibate for three years, but before that, anonymous sex was a staple of her life. Elle is the heroine of your book, Dirty, and while I didn’t like everything about her, I liked reading about her very much.
It’s at the candy store that Elle meets Dan, an attorney. He gives her a taste of black licorice and a longing for more. She goes to a bar with him and brings him back to her place, but he says a polite goodbye and leaves without even trying to kiss her. Weeks pass, and Elle can’t stop thinking about him. Then she sees him again and things get sexual. Elle expects nothing more, but Dan convinces her to see him again. She has a policy of not dating, so instead of dating, Dan makes appointments with her.
Elle will allow Dan to do all kinds of things to her, but not to kiss her on the mouth and not to give her compliments. Sex comes easily to her, but emotional intimacy does not. There is of course, trauma in Elle’s past, and parts of her story were easy for me to guess at. Dirty is not just the story of how Elle comes to accept herself and her past, but also the story of Elle’s relationship with Dan and how she slowly comes to want intimacy. But even when she wants it, Elle doesn’t know how to allow Dan in emotionally instead of pushing him away.
Back in January, Jane reviewed this book and gave it a C-. I am happy to say that I liked it about two letter grades better than Jane did. For me, Dirty is a book I know I will reread. Yes, it’s true, as Jane said, that Elle’s narration is a bit monotone, but though there were times I wanted just a bit more variety of tone, I also felt that this delivery showed Elle’s numbness, her emotional armor, in a way that a different tone would not have.
I also agree with Jane that Dan was at times too good at knowing exactly what Elle needed, but for me, this was balanced out by the fact that he wasn’t perfect in other ways. I would have liked more insight into Dan and more information about him, but I accepted that this had to be somewhat limited because the narrator of the story was Elle and she was afraid of emotional intimacy.
Like some of our readers who posted comments, I was not all that turned on by many of the sex scenes. This might be because I was far more interested in the emotional aspects of Elle’s story. In addition, “cunt” is not my favorite word for the female sex organ, but I understood why someone like Elle, who shied away from intimacy, would choose to use it. So even if it wasn’t conducive to putting me in the mood, so to speak, it worked for the character and for the story.
Whereas Jane found it difficult to root for Elle, I did not have that problem at all. On the contrary, her flaws made her more real to me, and that in turn made me more invested in her fate. When Elle finally allowed color into her life, I was deeply moved. When she reached out to others, I was very glad. And when she confessed her past to Dan, I cried copiously.
In her review, Jane mentions that you posted here on our blog that your book was not romance. For me, this book was a romance. It deals with a relationship, as well as a woman’s emotional journey. The main characters end up together and happier than they were alone in the beginning. Their happiness involves some struggle, yes, but aren’t relationships something everyone has to work at? Why should this book not be considered a romance?
Myself, I wish that more contemporary romances were more like this book. Gritty and real, with flawed characters who make mistakes. Characters who don’t feel generic or whitewashed. Characters I care about, because they seem like people I might sit across the room from in a restaurant. Characters who don’t have to be stamped with some mythical Middle American seal of moral approval to qualify for a happy ending.
Yeah, Dirty is a romance to me. And a damn good one, too. A-.