REVIEW: Carnal Secrets by Nadia Lee
Dear Ms. Lee:
I have talked with you on Twitter for several years now, and I even purchased another of your books from Amazon, but Carnal Secrets is the first of your books I sat down to read all the way through. For those people suspicious of self-published books, I am happy to report that I would recommend this book as an example of a professionally produced product on par with New York published books. Even the cover manages to represent the protagonists accurately and appealingly. In terms of the book itself, my reading experience can be summarized this way: Carnal Secrets turned out to be a pretty interesting book that had almost succeeded in convincing my otherwise.
Natalie Hall is the adopted daughter of a prominent U.S. Senator, who happens to be up for re-election in Virginia. Her mother and sister both seem to resent the hell out of Natalie, which baffles her, considering she is the adopted Asian daughter who never felt she fit in to this family of blue-blooded blondes. Still as a Wharton grad and newly promoted to Senior Financial Analyst at Damon Defense Engineering, Natalie has a lot going for her. She doesn’t know much about the circumstances of her adoption, but she knows her father loves her and she tries her best to be a dutiful daughter, despite her mother’s constant cold criticism.
Alex Damon knows that someone is spying for his biggest rival, Rodale International, and the payback is going to be personal. Emily Rodale, who also just happens to be Natalie’s godmother, managed to ruin Alex’s father and his company, something Alex has not forgotten nor forgiven. Ethan Lloyd, Alex’s best friend and Damon executive, is convinced that the spy is Natalie, not only because of her relationship with Emily, but also because of her close friendship with Charlie Rodale, Emily’s son and head of Rodale International. Alex, however, doesn’t want to believe that the beautiful and intelligent Natalie is the spy, although he finds his attraction to her as scary as it is powerful, given his father’s devastating involvement with the wrong woman.
The first half of Carnal Secrets reminded me strongly of a Harlequin Presents melodrama, but without that compulsively readable quality. Natalie arrives at work to find that her boss and the firm’s director had been unexpectedly fired. Disoriented, she must adjust to this shock, as well as the shock of Alex Damon’s physical presence in the office:
His entire body emanated authority and raw sexuality. The dark, tailored suit he was wearing tried to throw a veneer of civilization over him but failed. He would’ve been frightening if it weren’t for the iron control in the winter gray eyes that said he ruled, not his primal instinct. She shivered as his gaze brushed over her, head to toe and then back up to her face. She had the most absurd feeling that he was undressing her with his eyes.
Alex is predictably attracted, as well:
The black skirt suit had flattered her lithe figure, although she’d done her best to appear serious and aggressive — a corporate Amazon look he found distasteful in general but singularly sexy on her. And those stilettos had done amazing things to her legs. Long, shapely, and deliciously erotic. A legman’s fantasy come to life.
Alex invites Natalie out for a “work dinner” that evening, which, predictably, turns into a conversation about what it’s going to take for Natalie to indulge the “chemistry” between her and Alex. After all, Alex is the kind of man who makes Natalie “acutely aware of her femininity,” while Natalie is the kind of woman who makes Alex forget his father’s betrayal at the hands of Natalie’s godmother. A betrayal completely unknown to Natalie, whose relationship with the Rodale family seems much more happy and normal than the one she endures with her own family.
The set up here is pretty obvious – or at least it seems so. And the slow build-up in the novel is one of the things that worked against my full engagement. Natalie is saying ‘no no no’ to the interoffice dating thing, even though we know she’ll eventually submit, and that Alex will rock her world, especially after two bad relationships in her past. Alex is courting Natalie, not only because he’s enthusiastically attracted to her, but also because it gives him a way to get closer to her father and to the Rodales. And on the way to romantic bliss are a number of predictable miscommunications between the couple, which seem intended to increase the emotional angst and plot suspense.
Had I not been reviewing the book, I might have put it down after the first third, which would have been a shame, because what unfolds over the course of the book is really quite interesting and thoughtful.
First there is the relationship between Alex and Natalie, which goes from that over the top instant attraction to typical clueless male/oversensitive female dynamics to something more nuanced, where both characters actually try to communicate and better understand one another rather than drawing unflattering conclusions and bailing. Let me also express my appreciation for the way in which the book refuses to rely on racial stereotypes, either in exoticizing the heroine or in the way the heroine’s background plays into the suspense plot. Because Natalie’s personal history is entwined with the larger issues around the rivalry between Rodale International and Damon Defense Engineering, in so far as Alex discovers something explosive in regard to Natalie’s origins that could be used to blackmail Hall and either secure his loyalty to the Rodales or compromise it.
As for Natalie’s background, it remains on the novel’s carnal secrets, at least until she hears the story from her mother that Brian found her in a D.C. trash can and brought her home to adopt, well before Louise had a chance to give Brian a “real” son or daughter. Which helps to explain Louise’s intense resentment toward Natalie, but does not get Natalie any closer to understanding her origin story (and, as it turns out, that is not the last story Natalie eventually hears about where she came from). This element of the story was fascinating and I wish it had been further developed, especially because the question of who she really was seemed always at the back of Natalie’s mind, and could never be fully resolved by Alex or any other man. Developing this aspect of the book might also have fleshed out the characterizations of Natalie’s mother and sister (Belle), both of whom come off as somewhat shallow. Even once we understand the root of Louise’s anger, Belle’s resentment and insistence that Natalie was the one who got everything from their father seems a bit over the top and underdeveloped. I think the novel, and especially Natalie’s characterization, would have greatly benefited from the further development of these relationships.
Another important “secret” in the book is that of who is spying on Damon’s company. From the point of view of an outsider, the evidence against Natalie is strong. She lets Charlie Rodale escort her to parties, and at times it looks as if they might be a couple. She shares private meetings with Emily Rodale, who, fully admits to ruining Alex’s father’s company and marriage. As a reader, we see the moments where both Emily and Charlie are, in fact, begging Natalie for Damon intelligence, and we know from her refusal that she is not the corporate spy, despite Ethan’s insistence to Damon that he will resign if he is wrong about her.
Still, it looks shady that Natalie refuses to cut the Rodales out of her life, even though from a personal point of view her decision is perfectly understandable. Given her own troubled family relationships, Emily Rodale’s maternal support and Charlie’s seemingly unflappable friendship are valuable assets in Natalie’s life portfolio. And I liked that about Natalie and found it a nuanced aspect of the book that also served the suspense plot well. These relationships are also the means by which we find out an additional secret that Damon has not been able to uncover in his private investigations, but which explains nicely why Emily Rodale did what she did to Alex’s father.
Even Alex turns out to be a more interesting character than his early behavior would suggest. From the guy who’s seducing Natalie at their first dinner meeting to his “white knight” rescue of her at an awkward family event, to his clueless fed-exing of a ruby necklace to her from Hong Kong after they’ve slept together, he eventually turns out to have a functioning brain he can apply to a difficult problem like why it seems certain that Natalie spied even though every “masculine instinct” in him screams otherwise. Rather than letting her beautiful legs or lush red lips seduce him out of his suspicions, he actually manages to figure things out rationally, which was both refreshing and immensely satisfying, on both an emotional and intellectual level.
I think Lee has a good ear for dialogue, too, especially between Natalie and her best friend Kelly (they actually sound like young women!), as well as between Natalie and Emily Rodale.
Actually, as I write this, I realize that for me the romance itself was the least compelling aspect of the novel, in large part because so much else was going on in a relatively compressed time frame that HEA or even HFN love seemed premature. The couple spend a great deal of time apart, for example, and a good deal of that at odds, and while the lust is certainly believable, I really felt they were still working on a solid romantic friendship at the end of the book. Had the book been longer or the pacing different (more emphasis on the secrets and suspense early on, so that the romance could be built more strongly in the second part), I might have bought the love relationship more readily. However, it’s as if a really quite interesting story about several families is being disguised as a relatively stereotypical romance, such that the really interesting parts never get the chance to imbibe the romance with the emotional resonance it needs to match the other elements of the book.
In the end, despite my disappointments, I’m glad I read Carnal Secrets, and I would certainly try something else by Nadia Lee, with the hope that the romance is as interesting as other story elements. C+.