A note to readers: Since I felt it was impossible to discuss my reaction to this book without revealing something that happens near the end of the story, my review contains some spoilers. — Janine
Dear Ms. Hart,
Back in October, when we hosted this guest post on cultural appropriation, many of our commenters mentioned that they wanted to see more white authors tackle minority characters in central roles. Now comes your book, Naked, which has a biracial (part African American and part white) heroine.
Olivia has an interesting background. She was adopted into a white family; her father is Catholic and her mother Jewish. Her parents are divorced, and each wants Olivia to choose their religion. Olivia feels like she has a foot in each world, but doesn’t really belong in either one. Maybe this is what draws her to Alex, who is bisexual.
Readers of Tempted (reviewed here) and/or of the Spice Brief “Everything Changes,” which I recently reviewed here, will be familiar with Alex, a character who has been through the wringer in one of his past relationships.
Olivia first spots Alex at a holiday party thrown by her ex, Patrick. Patrick is gay — he and Olivia dated when he was still closeted, and when he came out to her she broke up with him. Patrick warns Olivia that Alex “doesn’t like girls” but that doesn’t turn out to be true. Alex likes both boys and girls.
Olivia sees Alex with another man at the party and assumes he’s gay. But Alex breaks up with that guy and Olivia, who lives in a converted fire house that functions as a duplex, offers to rent him the second apartment in her building. Alex, who is very wealthy, having sold his business in Singapore and gotten a load of money for it, takes the apartment and he is clearly attracted to Olivia, but at first she thinks the attraction is only on her side, since she believes he’s not into women.
Alex and Olivia watch DVDs together and he helps her paint her photography studio. Eventually that turns into a sexy photo session and one thing leads to another. The sex is great, but Olivia has been burned by her relationship with Patrick, and the last thing she wants is to be involved with another gay man.
A good portion of this book was romantic as well as sexy. Naked has some of your most sympathetic main characters and this is especially true of Olivia, the book’s first person narrator. She is hard working, caring, torn between cultures, bruised by her past with Patrick and overwhelmed by her feelings for Alex.
Olivia's identity issues regarding race and religion were interesting to read about. Not being biracial or adopted into a two-religion family that doesn't share my racial heritage, it's hard for me to judge how accurate this portrayal was but I did think it gave her character dimension.
Having read Tempted, I was also rooting for Alex, and he was sweet to Olivia in Naked, though I wish I had gotten a sense of what it was about Olivia that made him treat her differently than he treated most of the people he'd slept with.
I liked Olivia very much, and I thought perhaps the answer to Alex's attraction to her lay in their shared sense of being different from others, torn between two worlds. Olivia felt she was neither fully black nor white, neither Jewish nor Catholic, while Alex was conscious of being neither gay nor straight. But I would have liked to have seen this commonality mined more, and to have more insight into Alex's end of their attraction.
Alex was something of a mystery in this book. I think it's necessary to read Tempted and perhaps also the Spice Brief “Everything Changes” to have a better understanding of him, so I don't feel this book stands on its own that well. Even having read “Everything Changes” and Tempted, I still feel I’m missing some pieces of Alex’s character and I wish he’d shared more of himself with Olivia.
My feeling was that Alex seemed a little too good to be true, at least where Olivia was concerned, until late in the book. There is something big in his past (anyone who has read Tempted will know what it is) which he does not share with Olivia, and at the end of the book, this secret blows up in Olivia's face.
There is no label on the spine of the book to indicate genre, but because there was so much emphasis on Alex and Olivia’s relationship it is hard not to view Naked as a romance, rather than just erotic fiction. But viewed as a romance, it doesn't leave me with a lot of optimism for Olivia and Alex's future, since their communication problems (Alex keeps things from Olivia and she is afraid to ask him about them) are so omnipresent in the story.
The secondary characters were a mixed bag for me. Patrick's motives seem even more mysterious than Alex's. I never fully understood his reasons for causing problems between Alex and Olivia. He seemed like an emotionally unhealthy individual, but was it Alex or Olivia that he wanted all to himself?
I enjoyed some of the side characters I had encountered before in your other books. It was nice to see Sarah, one of Joe's dates in Broken, in the role of Olivia's best friend, and Jack who appeared in Dirty and Stranger as a guy Sarah clearly had feelings for but whose profession (male prostitute) she could not accept. Elle and her brother Chad from Dirty also appear, but the turnaround in Elle's family since Dirty was hard for me to buy.
You make good use of details of both setting and character, which made the book feel truly contemporary, and specific rather than generic. I like that the characters have human flaws and deal with issues people in the real world grapple with but which aren’t always explored in contemporary romantic fiction. This is something that I really appreciate about your books.
I did enjoy this book and I'm not sorry that I purchased it, but I also doubt that I will reread it, because the ending left me with a shaky feeling about this couple's future that negates the warm glow I had about them earlier on in the story. C+ for Naked.