REVIEW: Bared to You by Sylvia Day
I should probably say from the outset that I had real trouble with this book. When I first started reading, I thought it was going to be like The Black Dagger Brotherhood, not really my cup of tea but not something I would actively refuse to drink either. Unfortunately, by about the half-way point, Bared to You had become evil tea and, frankly, I didn’t want it anywhere near me. I also want to emphasise that I understand some people really like these books and, although I’m probably going to dwell extensively on what went wrong for me, I absolutely respect that. I’m not here to judge other people’s reactions, I’m just going to tell you mine, and you’re at liberty to ignore them, or engage with them, entirely as you choose.
Bared to You belongs to that strangely specific subgenre: Dominant Broken Billionaire Seeks Submissive Human Female For Repetitive Sex and Regular Bouts of Angst. I know it’s kind of fashionable to look down on books like this on principle, but I’m always slightly troubled by knee-jerk hostility to any type of fiction, especially when I’m not its target audience. I don’t particularly like Twilight, for example, but I sometimes worry that there’s something more than a little misogynistic about the depth of contempt expressed towards this book that primarily appeals to young women. I’m not saying that Twilight doesn’t have its problems, but I don’t think one of those problems is the fact that its vampires sparkle in sunlight.
By the same token, I’ve read Fifty Shades of Grey and, while I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience, I don’t feel I have any right to heap scorn on people who did. For me, the writing was so banal that I couldn’t really engage with the text, or even entertain myself by laughing at it, and I have real issues with its sexual dynamics and its portrayal of kink. It’s kind of impossible to talk about Bared to You without talking about 50 because, regardless of the contexts that created them and never mind who did it first, they echo and mirror other inescapably.
What I’m having trouble getting my head around is the fact that Bared to You is both better and worse than 50 but, unfortunately, I think the ways in which it was better led to me to respond very strongly to ways in which it was worse. So while, for example the kink-idiocy of 50 is deeply annoying (no, Ms James, people are not drawn to BDSM because they didn’t have enough love in their childhood), it’s hard to really get worked up about it because it already exists in such a vortex of stupid. On the other hand, Bared to You gives a semi-supportable impression of knowing what it’s doing, which meant that when all the problems marched over the horizon like an army of enormous, tumescent cocks I couldn’t simply wave them away.
The plot of Bared to You, such as it is, kicks off with our heroine – Eva Tramell – moving to New York to take up a position as Some Dude’s Assistant at a huge advertising agency. In the opening chapter, she leaves the ludicrously beautiful apartment she shares with her ludicrously beautiful bisexual best friend, Carey, ostensibly to go the gym. However, hearing, I suppose, the ultrasonic whistle of plot necessity, she randomly veers into her place of work solely for the purpose of falling onto her arse in front of Gideon Cross, the sexyhotmagneticmanlymanman who owns the building. And apparently most of New York. At the age of 28. Sigh.
If nothing else, I suppose we can admire the rapidity with which Day immediately introduces us to the diverse themes of her novel: Gideon is hot, Gideon and Eva want to do each other, all other women are shit. The reason, you see, that Eva ends up on the floor in front of Gideon is because some Other Woman drops her bag. Eva stops to help, falls over (because this is what heroines do), and thus attracts Gideon’s attention (because falling over apparently really turns men on). The Other Woman is so overcome by Gideon’s sexy manliness that she ignores Eva completely, despite the fact Eva was helping her, not Gideon. I guess this is the male equivalent of the “everyone wants to rape you super power.” So hot it turns women evil.
And you can probably fill in the rest of the plot for yourself. In all fairness, I can distinctly remember a brief period of being genuinely, and somewhat helplessly, caught by the inane pendulum of Gideon and Eva’s relationship. The whole thing is ludicrous, and the characters consistently display the emotional maturity of (if I may borrow Giles for a moment) blueberry scones, but I felt Bared to You understood, and owned, its absurdity. It shares a lot of tropes and preoccupations with 50: a deeply intense relationship between damaged people with apparently nothing else going on in their lives, portrayed in excruciating detail. I can (theoretically at least) see the appeal of books that are so utterly steeped in minutiae. George R.R. Martin, for example, stopped writing books some time ago, preferring instead to chronicle exhaustively the happenings of his imaginary kingdom almost in real time. And I guess some of the fascination of 50 was feeling you could live Ana’s life with her (though why you’d want to, is another question). But to me, this isn’t what a book is for. I read fiction because I want a fictionalisation. I don’t want the moment to moment, I want the good bits. Or, to put it another way, I want the narrative to be shaped for me, given light and shade and contrast and context. I want themes, and images, and implication and subtext and meaning, dammit, I want meaning. I don’t want to find the story sloshed over my feet like vomit, and be left to sort through the mess.
When I was reading 50, I didn’t want to know how messy Ana’s hair was that day, or where Christian Grey put his socks before sex. And, similarly, even though I found Bared to You noticeably more engaging, I still couldn’t be anything other than mind-numbingly bored as I found myself stuck watching Eva go about her daily routines of gym, work, talk to Carey, have sex and/or an argument with Gideon. I know it’s a personal preference thing, but this simply isn’t the way I want, or expect, stories to be told to me. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens. It’s kind of the equivalent of a version of Cinderella which spent as much time on her kitchen chores as it did on the ball. Although, to give Eva due credit, she fusses with her hair way less than Ana Steele. So there’s that.
There were occasions when I found the writing itself moderately effective. Whereas 50 takes place entirely in an over-detailed, under-realised vacuum (you know exactly how the furniture is arranged in Grey’s kinkpad but that’s not the same as knowing what it feels like to be there, I mean apart from seriously skeeved out and, perhaps, like you might laugh in his face), Bared to You does considerably better at creating some sense of time, place and reality. I enjoyed the descriptions of New York. When Eva wore a frock, I knew what it basically looked like. And sometimes the dialogue is quite snappy, for example as Eva attempts to navigate Gideon’s frankly sociopathic attitude to getting laid, she retorts: “Why not […] call it a seminal emission in a pre-approved orifice.” I liked that. But it’s all drowned in repetition: the same language, the same images, the same actions. Gideon’s long fingers. His very blue eyes. The trousers that hang endlessly off his hips (well, what else are they going to hang off? His nose?) To say nothing of Eva’s monsoon-season cleft and Gideon’s huge and veiny dick. Again, I can almost see how this is effective – the sheer, gruelling relentlessness of it hammers your imagination into such a state of numbed submission that your responses become sort of trained. But this isn’t writing, it’s conditioning. Not in a sinister, mind control way, just a banal, depressing way.
I know I’ve made a few sweeping statements in this article about The Way I Feel Things Should Be – and I’d just like to emphasise (re-emphasise) here that I’m very much talking about myself, my own tastes and preferences. It’s just, for me, reading is an act of communication and interpretation. And there’s no space for that here. Everything is delivered. Over-delivered. It’s like the author doesn’t even trust me to remember Gideon Cross’s fingers are long or his eyes are blue. I know we are all individuals, we all approach texts differently and want different things from them, and that’s okay, more than okay, that’s a good thing. But I simply can’t respect a book that doesn’t respect me.
My problems with the text are manifold, but I still feel I should try and find something positive to say. Eva is sort of low on actual, visible personality, because she’s the heroine of this sort of book but, considering she can take nourishment without requiring third party intervention, in purely evolutionary terms, she’s a massive upgrade on Ana Steele. She has a traumatastic backstory which – being in no position to judge – I felt was handled sensitively, sensibly and non-stereotypically. For the most part, anyway. There’s a slightly disconcerting bit near the end of the book where Eva invites Gideon to finger her, lube-less, in a non-traditional orifice (while they’re at his parent’s fundraiser). And this is apparently empowering because she normally doesn’t like to be touched there. She tells him:
“You can give me my body back, Gideon. I believe you’re the only one who can.” (p. 332)
Maybe I’m missing the point – we’re in first person narration here, so maybe it’s meant to ring a million alarm bells – but I am deeply deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the best way for a woman to come to terms with her sexual abuse is for the right man to put his dick in her.
The Dry Fingering Incident aside (seriously, that’s an acquired taste, I can’t imagine a less effective way to make someone feel in control of their body than sticking your finger up their arse), Eva seems to have a pretty active and assertive sexuality, which was a blessed relief compared to Ana’s virginal cluelessness. She obsesses about doing Gideon just as much as he obsesses about doing her:
He was the kind of guy that made a woman want to rip his shirt open and watch the buttons scatter along with her inhibitions (p. 17)
And she’s just as freakily jealous as he is. At one point she nearly has some kind emotional collapse when she realises he has had sex with other people over the course of his life. I mention this not because it made me think she was an admirable person I’d want to date, but because at least I felt she and Gideon were well-suited and mutually incapable of being in an adult relationship. To be fair, the same can be said about Grey and Ana, but she’s so unspeakably wet it comes across as a lot more overtly abusive.
Also, there’s been a vague attempt to give Eva meaningful relationships outside of her deranged, hot and cold fuckfest with a sociopath. She has parents, who care about her, albeit in slightly unhelpful ways (her stepfather showers in her money, her mother tracks her cell-phone), and there’s a semi-largish cast, most of whom have been delivered direct from Tokens R Us and exist solely to show the reader how awesome Eva is. For example, I think one of the first things Gideon’s father says to her is: “Your eyes are a stormy gray, yet they’re so clear and direct.” (p. 229) Oh wow, thank you, Physical Trait Exposition Man, without you I would have known so much less about our heroine. I dread to think how he converses with his son: “Your penis is so large and capable of bringing pleasure to many grateful women.” There’s also Eva’s boss, Black Gay Mark (two for one, oh yeah, score), and his boyfriend Blue Collar Steve, whose relationship is so “beautifully functional that it was a joy to spend time with them.” (p. 38) Because that’s why queer people have relationships. To please random straight women.
And, of course, Carey. When Carey first rocked up, I was disposed to be positive because he seemed to be a non-evil, non-fat, perfectly functional bisexual. I mean there’s this, of course:
No one would know from looking at him that he’d spent his childhood bouncing between his drug-addicted mother and foster homes, followed by adolescence in juvenile detention facilities and state-run rehabs. (p. 22)
Well, how would that look, Eva? People who have had miserable childhoods do not have to wear a special brand, you know. But, hey, the man’s had a hard life, put himself back together and seems to be a supportive, sensible friend for Eva so let’s, at least, take what we can get and rejoice for the one brief shining moment a fictional bisexual was not a complete social or sexual liability.
Aaaand, of course, Carey goes completely off the rails about halfway through the book, letting the side down by failing to be in an appropriately functional queer relationship. Tsk tsk. Didn’t he get the memo? He meets this trainee vet called Trey who is clearly the Good Sort of Gay, as evinced by the fact he is not “flashy”, wears jumpers and does wholesome things with Carey like Snuggling and Cooking Dinner. Then Carey cheats on him with some blonde woman (aaaah bisexuals, can’t trust ’em) and then has group sex in the living room:
One woman was spread-eagled on the floor. Another woman’s face was in her crotch. Cary was banging the hell out of her while another man was drilling him in the ass. (p. 437)
You can tell this man is a Bad Gay because he is penetrating Carey, not snuggling him or cooking him dinner. And heaven forfend that anyone would choose to have group sex for fun, rather than as a way to demonstrate they are deeply messed up and believe themselves incapable of being loved. I do, however, agree it’s slightly ill-mannered to use the living room for it without either informing or inviting your house-mate. And, of course, I know that people can, and do, use sex for self-punishment. And I know that sexual abuse can lead to unhealthy sexual behaviour. But it’s not … inherently the case, you know. Also I think judging Carey’s sexual choices is a bit off from a woman voluntarily dating Gideon Cross. Just sayin’.
Which brings us rather neatly to the man himself. Look, I’m not even going to get into what a complete arsehole I thought he was. He’s a fantasy, a silly, overblown, no-holds barred fantasy. I mean he says things like this:
“Romance isn’t in my repertoire, Eva. But a thousand ways to make you come are.” (p. 62)
I honestly don’t know how you’re meant to respond to a line like that. With helpless, horrified laugher possibly but I don’t really get much pleasure from laughing at books. On the other hand, I’ve found it fairly useful in my day-to-day life. Now, whenever my partner asks me to do pretty much anything I like to respond “Doing the dishes (or whatever it is) isn’t in my repertoire, but a thousand ways to make you come are.” It hasn’t, as yet, managed to get me out of doing the dishes, but I live in hope.
The fact is, there’s no way Gideon Cross was ever going to work for me, because he’s just not my fantasy. I can’t find him anything other than risible and borderline abusive. Raging jealousy isn’t sexy to me. Nor would I find it romantic if somebody replicated my bedroom in their house for when I stayed over. I would run the fuck away. Probably screaming. There are times when the book seems to openly acknowledge that Gideon does stuff that is seriously not okay (tracking Eva’s credit cards, for example, so he can stalk her) but I always got the sense it came with a nudge and wink. That actually, maybe, it might be secretly kind of thrilling to be the centre of a maelstrom of obsession. But, perhaps, that’s okay too. We’re all grown-ups here. We’re allowed to pick and choose our own fantasies. It’s not for me to try and draw the line in the sand that separates abuse from titillation, subversion from reflection.
That said, there was one aspect of Gideon I found very very troubling, and that was the depiction of his sexual abuse experiences. I just don’t understand how Day could clearly take such care to portray Eva with at least some degree of sensitivity, and not extend that same courtesy to Gideon. Obviously, traumatic events affect our lives, and we don’t so much “get over” them as learn to live with them. But just as it’s a big pile of not okay to suggest that we can be miraculously “cured” of unfortunate life experiences, it’s equally problematic to portray these experiences as necessarily rendering people completely non-functional.
I also recognise that, to a degree at least, it’s plausible that Eva has had all the therapy in the world and Gideon has blundered along, alone, in a complete mess. Although men and women aren’t aliens from different planets, we exist in different cultural and social contexts that are constructed from a wide range of factors, gender among them. One of the many deeply terrifying things about rape culture is that it works to normalise the experience of sexual abuse for women, while downplaying the sexual abuse of men. And don’t get me wrong, rape culture is infinitely more harmful to women than men, and I’m not remotely making comparisons here. The sexual abuse of women is an institutionalised problem. The sexual abuse of men is just shitty. But rape culture wants us to believe that it’s natural for women to be raped and, consequently, unnatural for men. It essentially reinforces, from both directions, deeply harmful notions of femininity and masculinity. And because male sexual abuse strikes directly at the foundation of everything most men are raised to believe about masculinity and power, it’s a great unspoken.
On the other hand, I hate the fact that much of Gideon’s general unsuitability as a romantic partner or, indeed, human being, seems to be directly related to his sexual abuse. Sexual abuse, incidentally, that is only darkly hinted at over the course of the novel, which has the unfortunate consequence of turning it into a tantalising plot-tease, like a mad wife in the attic. To put it another way, I was made quite uncomfortable by the realisation that the primary consequence of Gideon’s childhood sexual abuse seemed to have been to turn him into a romance hero. Basically, it makes him controlling, possessive, obsessive, jealous and prone to inappropriate sexual actions. Essentially it’s made him dark and damaged, but in a terribly, terribly sexy way. I know there’s a long history of tortured heroes who are gradually healed of their inner torment by the love of a good woman but, to me, in this book, possibly because it’s contemporary, grounding that in actual sexual abuse crossed a line between fantasy and reality that I simply was not okay with crossing. Presenting a history of sexual abuse as an integral part of a romantic fantasy, like a three piece suit and a big dick, is … well … that’s a deal-breaker for me.
Take this scene, where Eva witnesses in Gideon in the throes of a nightmare:
“Don’t touch me,” he whispered harshly. “Get your fucking hands off of me!”
I froze, my heart racing. His words sliced through the dark, filled with fury.
“You sick bastard.” He writhed, his legs kicking at the covers. His back arched on a groan that sounded perversely erotic. “Don’t. Ah, Christ … It hurts.”
He strained, his body twisting. I couldn’t bear it.
I was not thrilled by this scene for a whole bunch of reasons. Firstly, I know this is a work of fiction and realism is not the only purpose of fiction but that is not a man having a nightmare. That is a fictional character hinting to the audience that something terribly dark and interesting will be revealed to them at a later date. It’s the equivalent of those conversations you get in thrillers where the villain is all like “Have you done the thing I asked you to?” and the henchman is all like “Yes but there were … difficulties, and so the object was lost.” It’s a scene that’s been specifically designed to keep you interested without actually telling you anything. I’m not wild about that device on a basic narrative level but when the plot cookie that is being dangled in front of me is, um, sexual abuse it just feels kind of crass and demeaning.
I’m on thin ice here because this is all very subjective and I’m aware that this scene is very similar to a lot of things I’m perfectly okay with, for example Rhys Trahearn in The Iron Duke had sexual abuse in his backstory and it didn’t bother me in the slightest. I think if I had to articulate the difference, it’s between the book hinting at the hero’s dark secret and inviting the reader to be enticed by the question of what that secret is (even if that secret turns out to be sexual abuse) and the book hinting that the hero has been sexually abused and inviting the reader to be enticed by the question of what form that sexual abuse took. I’m not sure how to put this, but I felt I was supposed to be interested in the juicy details, and that just felt creepy and voyeuristic.
Although I know you’re not expected to find the scene actually sexy, it feels to me like you are supposed to be intrigued by it and, perhaps, engaged by the erotic potential of bringing comfort to this beautifully wounded man in a moment of personal vulnerability. As always it’s not my place to judge what people get off on, or how people read particular elements of particular books, but the way I read this element of this book made me the whole experience actively unpleasant. At this point, I lost all hope of enjoying the outrageous excesses the book. I couldn’t even laugh at it any more. It just left me feeling sad and depressed and kind of dirty.