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REVIEW: Dirty by Megan Hart

Dear Ms. Hart,

dirty.gifElle 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-.

Sincerely,

Janine

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

25 Comments

  1. Barbara B.
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 06:08:53

    This was one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read. I was surprised when I read that it wasn’t. It’s not a traditional romance, that’s true. But the way the hero loved and accepted the heroine was deeply moving and that’s pretty damned romantic to me. I loved the complexity of Elle and the way Dan didn’t let that scare him off. With this book I felt as if I’d finally found a contemporary romance writer who writes with the intensity of my favorite historical writers like Judith Ivory, Laura Kinsale, Gayle Feyrer/Taylor Chase, Connie Brockway, and a few others. I prefer contemporaries but most of them are just so much fluff. I want to read about complicated people finding a way to be in love in a more realistic way than romance is usually written. Hart knows how to do this and still make me feel as if I’ve read a romance.

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  2. Janine
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 08:48:40

    Barbara, the book I was reminded of when I read this one was Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (although that one doesn’t have a happy ending). I was reminded of it because both books took their characters’ situations very seriously, explored them with depth, and also, because the characters in both books, for all that they were dealing with intense things I have never dealt with, seemed like real people I might someday meet.

    I loved the specifity that Hart went to in describing Elle, that she wanted just an accountant but that she needed to count, that she didn’t just like books but that her favorite book was Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. Those details made her come alive to me.

    I think that some authors, particularly of contemporaries, may be too leery of making their characters different from the average woman, for fear the reader won’t relate to the character. At least, that’s the way a lot of books read to me. And I think that’s a mistake, because to me, one of the things that make a character real is his or her uniqueness.

    So, to get back to what you were saying, although I don’t dislike contemporaries, they also aren’t my favorite subgenre (often because the characters don’t feel very contemporary), but if more of them were like this one, they could be.

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  3. May
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 09:16:59

    Everyone knows how much I loved this book by now, I think. LOL.

    I seem to find that problem about the male protagonist in every first person romance (told from the heroine’s point of view) I’ve read, including another Megan Hart title, Passion Model.

    Like you, I think I would appreciate contemps more if they were more like this book.

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  4. Tara Marie
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 09:22:46

    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-.

    Can you see me nodding right along with you??

    As I read it I felt the monotone narration completely worked and thought it was written purposely for that. Elle is monotone, emotionally closed off and even in the end love hasn’t magically made her better, she’s dealing with issues that may never completely heal and that made her real and that’s why I found it very easy to root for her as an individual and she and Dan as a couple.

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  5. Robin
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 09:35:28

    I also really liked this one, for many of the reasons you state, Janine. Unlike some readers, I understood why a woman like Elle would appeal to Dan, even as I wanted MORE of his character revealed. Dirty was reminiscent of Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed in that respect — the first person female narrative means that the author has to work harder to reveal the guy’s character to the reader. But because I found Elle so compelling, I let it slide. All the small details you pointed out, plus the way Elle so clearly understands herself helped me not lose patience with her and know that if she gave in fully too early, it would spell disaster for the budding relationship. Although I agree with the poster who thought the cover to Hart’s next book, Broken, featured a woman who looks like a child, I’m very much looking forward to the book itself.

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  6. Phyl
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 09:41:15

    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 thought this in particular was what made this book a brilliant piece of writing. On the surface, you’d think it would make it a boring book, but instead I found it captivating. I didn’t just know about Elle’s armor, I felt it. I liked the way we were given clues to Elle’s story, so that we weren’t totally surprised when she tells Dan. I agree with the comments that this definitely is a romance. When I was done I was convinced that these two would be able to build a good life together.

    It’s funny that despite Jane’s C- she still “sold” it to me. I remember rushing right over to Fictionwise to buy it after her review.

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  7. Janine
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 10:13:15

    [quote comment="26831"]I seem to find that problem about the male protagonist in every first person romance (told from the heroine’s point of view) I’ve read, including another Megan Hart title, Passion Model.[/quote]

    I think this is the reason why some romance readers avoid first person books. They are not always my favorites, either, but in this case, Elle and her relationship with Dan were so interesting that, even though I would have liked to have Dan’s POV, I felt that ultimately Hart made the right choice to tell Elle’s story in Elle’s own voice.

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  8. Rosie
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 10:17:53

    What a book. I finished it over a week ago and I’m still thinking about it. One of the reviewers or commenters I’ve read about it over the past week said something that struck a chord with me. I, for one, wanted to know more about Dan and his motivations and reasons he was able to stick with Jane.

    This person, my apologies for not remembering who you are, said that we are discovering/uncovering Elle just as Dan is. She’s being revealed to us bit by bit. If we knew Dan’s motivations then we might not be as invested in Elle and hoping for his acceptance and understanding of her. In retrospect I think this is so true.

    I leave you with a quote that I can remember who to credit. Super Librarian Wendy sums up how I’ve come to feel about DIRTY:

    Romance gives me something that no other genre can – when it’s done right, it emotionally invests me. It speaks to me on a deeper emotional level. It has a lingering effect. Let us call it what it is – Reading Afterglow. With a good romance, I have total recall. I can tell you how I felt when I was reading it, and the emotional effect it had on me.

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  9. Janine
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 10:24:58

    I also really liked this one, for many of the reasons you state, Janine. Unlike some readers, I understood why a woman like Elle would appeal to Dan, even as I wanted MORE of his character revealed.

    I didn’t remember that some readers had trouble understanding this. I think Elle would be alluring to a lot of men — a beautiful, intelligent and mysterious woman who is game to try a lot of different things in bed? The reader response you are talking about sounds more like a woman’s response to Elle than a man’s.

    All the small details you pointed out, plus the way Elle so clearly understands herself helped me not lose patience with her and know that if she gave in fully too early, it would spell disaster for the budding relationship.

    It’s good that you bring up Elle’s self-awareness. I liked that very much about Elle and about the book, too. It was one of the ways Hart showed Elle’s intelligence rather than just describing Elle as smart.

    Although I agree with the poster who thought the cover to Hart's next book, Broken, featured a woman who looks like a child, I'm very much looking forward to the book itself.

    I just got the ARC for Broken, and I do plan to review it, though I don’t know how soon. It may take me a while to pick up Broken, since Dirty was such an intense read.

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  10. Janine
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 10:30:32

    Tara Marie, we are nodding together. :-)

    Phyl, I’m glad you enjoyed the book too.

    Rosie, great point that if we knew more of Dan’s motivations it might change our investment level in Elle. Still, I couldn’t help but want to know more about Dan. But like Robin, I let it slide because so much else in this book was so satisfying.

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  11. Robin
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 10:37:28

    I think Elle would be alluring to a lot of men -’ a beautiful, intelligent and mysterious woman who is game to try a lot of different things in bed?

    Initially, yes, but as things get more involved, and he’s the one pushing for commitment, I think it’s fair to wonder why he is so adamant about staying with her and pushing the intimacy issue. I think Alison Kent’s review on PBR mentioned this, and I’ve seen it elsewhere. I could fill in the blanks for myself there, but IMO it would have been nice to get *something* more on Dan, even though I agree with Rosie that the reader is sort of being seduced by Elle right along with Dan, and so our affection for her becomes a mirror for Dan’s; i.e. if we can want to get deeper into her world and her heart as readers, we can understand why Dan would be equally captivated, even though the nature of the relationship is different.

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  12. Janine
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 10:40:23

    Ah, I see what you are saying, and I agree with all your points.

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  13. Barbara B.
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 10:46:53

    Janine, I forgot to thank you for the great review. If I hadn’t already bought the book and read it several times, I’d buy it on the strength of your review. Actually like Phyl, Jane’s review would have sold the book for me, too. Anyway, you mentioned a word that I struggle to come up with sometimes when I’ve tried to express what I feel is missing from so many of the books I read. It’s depth. It’s a constant craving for me as a romance reader. So rare though. At least in the books I’ve come across lately.

    I was already a huge fan of Megan Hart’s before, but Dirty really solidified her place on my short auto-buy list. Another thing that I liked about Dirty was that it was a contemporary. No paranormal, suspense, or fantasy gimmicks, just two people with realistic problems. Sometimes I just want a romance that’s just about the romance yet still has some real life complexity to it. It was also pretty cool that the story used a lot of the elements from one of Hart’s short stories, Everything Counts. I thought that was pretty brilliant.

    BTW, does anyone know if Robin has a blog or website? I’ve been reading her comments at various sites and I really like the way she thinks!

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  14. don (the dad) hart
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 12:47:59

    megan,
    as your dad i should be “shocked”. i’m not, i just do not know where you get your ideas>

    love,

    da poppa

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  15. Janine
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 13:29:18

    You’re welcome, Barbara. Robin blogs once a month on Access Romance’s Readers Gab column.

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  16. May
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 14:06:50

    Janine, I am ever so jealous of your Broken ARC.

    By the way, can you email me? Jane has my addy, or you should be able to snag it through WordPress. Or should I go through the contact form?

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  17. Janine
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 14:27:13

    May, you can email me at janine @ dearauthor.com

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  18. Barbara B.
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 15:37:54

    Thanks, Janine.

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  19. Stacy ~
    Apr 19, 2007 @ 04:42:15

    I also wanted to say how much I enjoyed this book, and like Barbara, felt it was very romantic. Not so much in the traditional sense, but in the way Dan stood by Elle, and how Elle still struggles, but has learned that it’s okay to trust in someone else, and that person is Dan.

    This book totally captured my attention, and I immediatley read it twice. I’d never heard of Megan Hart before, but now her next book is on my tbb list. Oh how I long to find more books that grab me like this one did.

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  20. Robin
    Apr 19, 2007 @ 11:23:19

    BTW, does anyone know if Robin has a blog or website? I've been reading her comments at various sites and I really like the way she thinks!

    Thanks, Barbara! I really appreciate your kind comment. As Janine said, you can find my posts on Access Romance’s Reader’s Gab once a month and god knows I comment everywhere else and review here and there (especially here these days as Janet). And because I’m finishing up my last semester of law school and am starting bar exam prep, I’m ALWAYS on the computer these days, so I tend to take a ton of breaks by surfing and commenting. So much easier than studying, let me tell you! And no degrees required to talk about Romance, which is a boon for me right now.

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  21. The Stalker on Saturday « Milady Insanity
    Apr 21, 2007 @ 08:58:12

    [...] Janine enjoyed Megan Hart’s Dirty! [...]

  22. REVIEW: Reason Enough by Megan Hart | Dear Author: Romance Book Reviews, Author Interviews, and Commentary
    May 30, 2008 @ 15:00:49

    [...] Spice Brief, Reason Enough continues the story of Elle and Dan from Dirty. Since I loved Dirty, I was really looking forward to Reason Enough and I am happy to say I enjoyed [...]

  23. Roselyn
    Aug 06, 2009 @ 05:24:24

    I wanted to add another quick review about ‘Dirty’. I enjoyed it like i’ve enjoyed everyone of MH books. I agree with the ‘Reading Afterglow’, I’ve had that with every book, and the books story and characters stay long afterward. Dan’s sureness of what he wanted and what Elle wanted made me like Dan more and more. I’m also one to think, always thinking, so I understood Elle completely and I would enjoy being told what to do when I wanted someone to tell me what to do.

    I thought the story of her brother and what happened was intense, not expected in any piece of literature but that’s what makes MH unique. Oh and loved the introduction of Jack and Dan’s attitude towards the whole experience. Well done again MH!

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  24. Shameless Reading Romance Blog » Dirty by Megan Hart
    Sep 17, 2009 @ 15:52:55

    [...] @ Dear Author . A- . 4/18/07 . “Myself, I wish that more contemporary romances were more like this book. Gritty and real, with flawed characters who make mistakes. [...]

  25. TXexs Twitter
    Jun 17, 2010 @ 19:42:11

    I read “Dirty” last summer and still like to read parts of it again and again. The way Megan Hart writes you feel like you’re right there feeling each ridge and tasting well,you know.I liked the disconnect Elle used as an excuse to be such a slut.It was hard to see why Dan got confused with emotions.That must have been the real fantasy part to confuse fu..ing with love.

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