Jan 31 2008
Janine: My friend Jennie F. and I had so much fun doing a conversational review of Jane Lockwood’s Forbidden Shores that we decided to do it again. Lo and behold, the subject of this discussion is also a novel about an erotic entanglement that involves two men and a woman! This time, it’s Megan Hart’s Tempted.
Jennie F.: Yes, it seems to be a theme with us!
Janine: LOL! Jennie, I’d like to start with a brief discussion of the labeling of this book and of its cover.
First, Tempted is described as “An Erotic Novel” on its front cover; and simply as a “Novel” on the spine. Are the book’s romantic elements strong enough that you would consider it a romance? Are its erotic elements prominent enough that you would call it erotica? Or do you feel that “erotic novel” is the right definition?
Jennie F.: I think coming up with a niche for this book (and to some degree, Hart’s other books) is a bit problematic. I would have a problem calling Tempted a romance, because
Perhaps it’s just my own personal definition of “erotic novel”, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect to face some of the heavy emotional issues that Hart writes about in a novel labeled that way. I suppose “erotic novel” or simply “novel” works best for me, although the latter might leave some readers (albeit readers who don’t bother to look at the racy cover or read the back text) a bit shocked at the content.
Janine: Those labels work pretty well for me, but I brought it up because labeling and the way it sets up reader expectations has been a much discussed issue here at Dear Author. If we expect a certain kind of ending or a certain kind of content because of the way a book is labeled, and then we don’t get it, we can often feel very frustrated even though the book itself may be well-written.
Jennie F.: Yes. I think Hart is extremely difficult to classify; I’d almost call her erotic women’s fiction, but not the kind of women’s fiction that is at all chick-litty, more the sort of serious kind. I don’t think that label would fit on a spine, though. :-)
Janine: I understand what you mean, because Hart’s books do deal with women’s issues, and yet, I hesitate to call them erotic women’s fiction because I have this association to women’s fiction as a genre in which the characters sometimes lack a kind of romantic glamour that I crave; but Hart’s characters have that glamour in spades.
Getting back to the issue of genre and how much we want books labeled accurately. At the same time, I think it’s often true, for me at least, that some of the books that are most interesting and exciting to me are those genre-benders that are hard to categorize. The Time Traveler’s Wife, anyone?
Jennie F.: Oh, absolutely. Honestly, that’s a large part of Hart’s appeal, for me. Her prose is decent, but not remarkable, IMO. It’s the way she tells a story and combines different elements, confounding genre expectations. Usually that’s a good thing, but I think maybe not so much in Tempted.
Janine: I myself like her prose and think it is better than average. But before we launch into a discussion of the book, I want to know, what do you think about the cover?
I bring it up because I was grateful for online bookstores when I purchased this book. The photo on the cover is so explicit that I’m not sure I could have got up the nerve to grab this book from the shelf at a brick-and-mortar bookstore and bring it to the front of the store and then present it at the register.
On the other hand, when I did get the book in the mail, I was struck by the beauty of the cover, too. So I was wondering if it made an impression on you.
Jennie F.: It is lovely, but I’m a little uncomfortable with overtly erotic covers. I can bring myself to buy them in bookstores by reminding myself that the clerk probably doesn’t care *that* much what I’m reading.
Janine: You’re a braver woman than me! I still buy them, but off the internet.
Jennie F.: Hee. I still remember years ago buying a Black Lace book at Borders, getting a male clerk, and being so flustered that I forgot my change and he had to call me back for it. Very. Embarrassing.
I don’t usually buy erotic books (or romances, for that matter) in brick-and-mortar stores anymore, but that’s because my purchases in those genres are usually more planned, whereas the books I buy in brick-and-mortar stores (literary fiction or non-fiction, generally) tend to be impulse buys.
But reading them in public would be a no-go. Though that’s true of a lot of the more bodice-rippery romance covers, too, though for a slightly different reason (for the former I worry that people think I’m a pervert; for the latter, a twit).
Janine: I read Hart’s Broken (the cover of that book made it clear it was erotic subject matter, but wasn’t as visually explicit as the cover of Tempted) in a public place, but I have to confess that I felt self-conscious about it and wondered if people were looking at me and if so, what they were thinking.
I really wish I had a little more “Who cares what people think?!” in me.
Jennie F.: Yeah, I’m saving that for when I’m 80. I plan to use it to harangue various low-level functionaries about typographical and grammatical errors (like the movie marquee I saw recently that advertised the film “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead”). I’m too aware of how fussy and pedantic I’d come off doing it now, but I figure with one foot in the grave, I won’t care so much.
Jennie F: I think the cover of Tempted nicely conveyed what the book is about, though.
Janine: Yes, I agree. And it’s also a thing of beauty — the beauty of the human body.
Jennie F.: Right. It was sexy, and as I said a little too explicit for public consumption, but still tasteful and beautifully done.
Janine: Next, I’m going to launch into a description of the book for the benefit of our readers who haven’t read it:
Anne Kinney is in her late twenties and happily married to James, a nice, attractive guy with a good job. They have a house on the lake and what seems like the perfect life, until James gets a call from his childhood friend Alex. Alex and James were best friends for years until they had a falling out.
Alex moved to Singapore shortly after that, and when James and Anne married, a long distance friendship between Alex and James resumed. Now Alex has sold his company in Singapore for millions and is on his way back stateside. James invites him to stay at his and Anne’s house for a few weeks, and Alex takes James up on the invitation.
James is not his usual nonchalant self when he talks to Alex on the phone, so right off the bat, Anne is very curious about Alex and about James’s friendship with him.
While waiting for Alex to arrive, Anne meets with her three sisters to plan a 30th anniversary party for her parents. But Anne’s father is alcoholic, and although she doesn’t admit it to anyone else, Anne doesn’t understand why her mother puts up with it and why her sisters never really admit there is something deeply wrong in their family.
James’s family seems far more normal to Anne, but she also feels that she will never please James’s mother, who desperately wants Anne and James to have children. Anne is grappling with endometriosis and with memories of an unwanted pregnancy that ended badly, and she doesn’t know if she is ready to have children yet.
When Alex arrives, attraction flares between him and Anne. Anne discovers that Alex too comes from a dysfunctional family, and his bad boy allure is as powerful in its way as James’s good boy appeal. She finds herself telling Alex about the time her drunken father took her out sailing as a child and they almost drowned, something she never told anyone else about.
At the same time, there are times when Anne feels shut out by the rapport that Alex and her husband share. Yet James seems to desire her more than ever now that Alex is their houseguest. The boundaries between the three slowly begin slipping, and it is not clear to Anne what it is that any of them wants. Is Alex in love with James? Is James in love with Alex? And who is Anne more in love with, James or Alex?
I don’t want to reveal too much more about the main plot, although it should be obvious to anyone who has glanced at the cover that eventually Anne, James and Alex end up in bed together.
There are also storylines about two of Anne’s sisters that get developed later in the book.
Tempted is written in first person from Anne’s point of view and I thought Anne was a well-developed character. I liked the way her life seemed flawless on the outside but that in fact, she was not as mature as she thought she was.
Jennie F.: I didn’t love Anne, personally. But then, I wasn’t entirely crazy about Elle in Dirty, either. My favorite Hart heroine is Sadie from Broken. I think Hart writes heroines who are flawed in interesting ways, but maybe in ways that make them less sympathetic to me.
Anne’s lack of direction made her less relatable to me. Not that I’m a real go-getter, but she was what, around 30? She didn’t have a job, didn’t seem to have much in the way of plans for getting a job. I wondered what she did with her days (before all the hot sex with Alex). Maybe I was jealous of her!
Janine: I haven’t had a problem sympathizing with any of these heroines, actually. I had Anne pegged as a little younger; in her late twenties perhaps? Her parents were having their thirtieth anniversary, so I don’t think she was thirty yet. More specificity about the characters’ ages and career situations would have been good, I think.
Jennie F.: I do agree that there was an interesting dichotomy between the superficial trappings of Anne’s life and what was going on inside her. But I’m not sure that dichotomy was resolved to my satisfaction at the end of the book.
Janine: Yes, I see your point, and yet, there was realism to the resolution in that it fit Anne’s character. I liked the fact that the attraction between the three main characters had an impact on Anne and James’s marriage (I’m trying not to give it away) and was not simply there to titillate the reader.
Jennie F.: Yes, I agree with this. It was really an emotional attachment between the three characters, not just a sexual one, which in many ways is why it ends up becoming a source of conflict.
Janine: Exactly. And that’s also what makes it interesting. Especially since two of them are married, and yet, no one can be called a cheater in a threesome.
I felt that Hart did a good job with Alex’s character. He was a bit mysterious but that was as it should be, since there was so much Anne didn’t know about him. For me, Hart succeeded in making Alex edgy, appealing and human, not an easy feat.
Jennie F.: Alex was appealing, perhaps too much so; he and Anne seemed to understand each other in a way that Anne didn’t share with James. It left the triangle a little unbalanced.
Janine: I didn’t feel that he was too appealing, though I agree that the triangle was a little unbalanced. I think it could have been more balanced had James’s character been developed better.
Jennie F.: Maybe it was because Alex was more of a traditional romance hero – bad-boy, sexually experienced and adventurous, successful in everything he does despite coming from a disadvantaged background. It made James fade into the woodwork a little.
Janine: While I liked James well enough, I agree he was neither as interesting nor as appealing as Alex. But what was a bigger problem for me was that I felt that there was too much I didn’t know about him. Since Anne is the narrator and I have the impression that she and James have been married for a few years, I felt that Anne should have known him more thoroughly and been better able to familiarize us readers with her husband.
Jennie F.: Yes, that was a lot of my problem with the book as well. The presence of Alex, and the dynamic between Alex and James, made James less appealing, perhaps even a bit less manly, in my eyes. He seemed weak when measured against Alex’s vibrant energy.
And while Alex and Anne shared the bond of troubled childhoods, James’ seemingly charmed existence made him feel flat. It did have the effect of making it seem like Anne didn’t really know him, in spite of their years of marriage. She seemed to idealize him. Not in a worshipful way, but as if she only saw the surface of his happy-go-lucky persona. I ultimately wondered if Anne was with James for the right reasons.
Janine: I wouldn’t use the words flat or weak to describe James, but he had not been tested by life the way Alex had, and so in some ways he felt more like an unproven quantity.
I also felt, though, that I didn’t hear as much as I wanted to about James, didn’t have enough of a sense of his hopes, his dreams, his disappointments in life — in sum, what made him tick. And since the narrator was his wife, a woman who had been married to him and should know these things, it felt like a glaring lack to me not to have more of these things communicated in the book.
In many ways I felt that James had the potential to be the book’s most interesting male character, because Alex was much closer to the typical romance hero character, and James was more unusual. I wanted Hart to really plumb his depths to a greater degree than she did, but I still enjoyed reading about him.
Your comments on James and Anne are very interesting to me, because I see that where I had put down the feeling I had that Anne didn’t know James well enough to Hart’s choice to go into the subplots about the family members rather than develop James’s character more deeply, you put it down to a deliberate choice on the author’s part to show that Anne chose not to see beneath James’s surface.
Jennie F.: Yes, and it makes me wonder if Anne just didn’t understand James very well, or if perhaps there just wasn’t that much to understand – he wasn’t that deep. Take, for instance, the situation with his mother – James’s mother was really rather a nasty character,
I was left feeling frustrated and didn’t know if I should blame the author for not giving James more depth, James himself for being shallow, or Anne for not seeing beyond James’s facade. Though it is a good sign, incidentally, when I’m willing to blame the characters rather than the author for their shortcomings; it means that they did come alive for me, at least to some degree.
Janine: That’s a good point. Regardless of the other issues I had, all three main characters came alive for me as well in this book.
As I’ve alluded to, there were times when I felt that Hart took on too much material in this book, with the numerous subplots about Anne’s family members. These characters reflected aspects of Anne’s life, but I think I would have preferred fewer pages devoted to them and more to exploring the triangle of James, Anne and Alex.
Jennie F.: This didn’t bother me as much, though I also didn’t find any of these other storylines hugely compelling. The resolution of the older sister’s problems felt particularly pat to me.
Janine: Yes, I agree on both counts. These storylines weren’t compelling in and of themselves (though I liked the way one of them connected to Broken) and were mostly interesting in what they revealed about Anne.
It’s not that I felt they were without value, but more that I felt that the emotional engine of the book was in the triangle between Alex, James and Anne, and that I wanted to know more about each of the men and their relationship with one another, as well as with Anne. The book was long enough that I think if one of the subplots had been dropped, there would have been room to develop the triangle more equally, and then it could have been a fantastic read.
Jennie F.: Yes, I agree. Since I didn’t find them that compelling, I think the book could’ve lost at least one of them easily.
Jennie F.: Yes, I totally agree. Perhaps because in the other two books, the heroine’s emotional growth was spurred by her relationship to the heroes of those books. Whereas here…I suppose that was the intent, but at times it felt like two separate stories occurring side-by-side. While the heroine came to peace with her issues, to a degree, I’m afraid that I felt that
Janine: I felt somewhat as you did, but it wasn’t a strong feeling for me.
Jennie F.: Hmm. Maybe it just comes down to my expectations as a romance reader.
I still recommend Tempted though, because even when she’s not in top form, Hart keeps me interested, and because her view of contemporary America feels so much more real to me than what I see in many contemporary romances. And also because, if I haven’t mentioned it before, some of the sex in this book was quite hot.
Overall, though Tempted isn’t her best work, I wasn’t sorry I spent $13.95 on it, either. I will definitely read Hart’s next book, too, since I’m very eager to see what she will write about next.
Jennie: I fully intend to keep reading her, for the reasons you mention. Romances deal with sex and erotica deals with sex, but often neither does so in a particularly honest or realistic manner. Hart is different in that respect – I do feel that her take on sex and relationships is less fantasy-based (which again, *can* mean less romantic, though I don’t think it has to). I would not warn anyone off Tempted, but would suggest that if you haven’t read Hart before, you start with Dirty or Broken; both are superior books IMO.
Janine: I agree completely (Isn’t it funny how we have a way of doing that?). What grade do you give Tempted, Jennie?
Jennie: I would give it a C+
Janine: I think I liked it a bit better than you did. For me, it’s a B-.