Dear Ms. Bradley,
Rowan Cassidy, the heroine of your book, The Dark Garden, has a preference for “extreme sex.” Years ago, when she was in college, Rowan suggested that she and her college boyfriend Danny give BDSM a try. Danny agreed, but then took advantage of his dominant position and turned abusive. After that Rowan became afraid of taking on the submissive role in a sexual relationship, but since she was still drawn to BDSM, she became a dominant. Now a mistress at an exclusive Los Angeles BDSM club, Rowan has been a dominant for years, but lately, she feels disenchanted and not engaged while dominating her lovers. The erotica she is writing from a submissive character’s viewpoint holds her interest better.
One night, a gorgeous man walks into the club. Rowan is instantly attracted to him, and she finds out he is Christian Thorne, a sculptor and a dominant recently returned from a long sojourn in Europe. Christian too is immediately drawn to Rowan. He suspects that her true nature is to enjoy submission, and that she can discover that in the hands of the right man. So Christian suggests that Rowan and he enter into a 30 day contract. During these 30 days, he will take the dominant role, and prove to Rowan that he is correct about her. If he’s wrong, he says, Rowan will still gain insight into what it’s like to submit, and that will make her a better dom. If he’s right, she’ll discover more pleasure than she’s experienced before. What does she have to lose?
Of course, Rowan feels that she has a lot to lose, but she also can’t resist the combination of Christian’s allure and the challenge of proving him wrong. So she agrees to be his lover for thirty days, with the provision that there be no intercourse. The first time Christian binds Rowan, she feels so afraid that she bursts into tears and runs away, but Christian, who is worried by her strong reaction and curious about it, convinces her to return. Rowan begins to feel safe with Christian, but then she becomes afraid that she might be falling in love with him.
There is also a subplot involving two other members of the club, Rowan’s friend April, and Decker, who is something of a playboy in the BDSM world. April and Decker begin to sleep together and discover they have the chemistry of propane and lit matches. But April is also losing her heart to her lover, even though Rowan and others warn her that Decker isn’t a man to commit to any one woman, no matter how good the sex is. April knows it’s just a matter of time before her heart is broken, but she plans to enjoy every minute with Decker while she can.
I found The Dark Garden somewhat frustrating to read. The dialogue seemed to me to sit on the characters’ lips stiffly or awkwardly, and sometimes they spoke in cliches like “You have nothing to lose and everything to gain” or “Flattery will get you nowhere.”
I also thought the beginning of the book was weak. Rowan and Christian barely knew each other when they agreed to a thirty day contract. A one night stand or even a week together I could understand, but a month is a long time to agree to spend with someone you’ve only talked to once or twice. The book approached being a DNF for me during this early stage.
Once the contracted period began the book got more interesting and I felt more involved, but I would have liked for the psychological issues that were hinted at with both characters to be explored with greater depth and realism. I felt that a trauma such as the one Rowan had was bad enough that it should have brought up fear for her physical safety during BDSM play, but for the most part, Rowan’s fear seemed to be more focused on that of falling in love.
It was also stated briefly in the book that Rowan’s mother had been abusive and domineering to Rowan when Rowan was a child. I wanted to see how this affected Rowan as an adult beyond just her fear of getting close to people and of falling in love. Rowan never, for example, questioned whether her preference for extreme sex stemmed from this childhood, and I found that curious.
I wanted more psychological exploration of Christian as well. There was a mention of the fact that Christian’s father deserted the family when Christian was only twelve, but again, not enough was made of this beyond the fact that Christian had felt responsible for his mother and sister and now felt responsible for Rowan. Did Christian have any anger at his father? Any other abandonment or commitment issues resulting from his past? If they were there I didn’t see them.
Christian keeps telling his friend Sterling that Rowan is special and unlike any other woman he’s been with before, but try as I did, I couldn’t see what, beyond her physical exterior, made Rowan so unique to Christian and why he became obsessed with her. I did appreciate the fact that Christian and Rowan shared an interest in art and had some conversations about that; it made me feel that they did have some things in common.
Despite all this, the book held my attention very strongly once Rowan and Christian’s thirty days began, for three reasons.
The first is that the sex was very hot. I’m probably not the typical reader of BDSM erotic romances because while I do love power games, I also have to get over a certain squeamishness about physical pain. Nonetheless, I thought The Dark Garden was a very erotic book; steam practically rose from its sex scene pages.
Second, the April and Decker storyline was easier for me to take at face value because neither character had a complicated past. I had a lot of fun reading about the sex they had, even if I did wonder how they knew they were in love when they were barely acquainted outside of sex.
Finally, you have a gift for creating mood and atmosphere. Christian and Rowan’s artistic homes, their BDSM club, the gallery where Christian’s sculptures are displayed, felt like unique, individual places. The richness of sensory detail with which they were depicted affected me deeply. I truly felt that I was whisked away to a mysterious and spellbinding world. For the hours that I read The Dark Garden, I was content to let this luxurious world surround me, and that was almost enough to make up for the aspects that frustrated me. Almost, but not quite. C+ for this one.