REVIEW: Start Me Up by Victoria Dahl
Dear Ms. Dahl:
Now that I’ve read three of your novels, I see a pattern in your heroines: they are extremely jealous of their independence, convinced that no man can be depended on, and afraid of showing themselves completely to the world. I appreciate these qualities in a genre that too often holds its heroines to unreasonable standards of nobility, gentility, and congeniality. All of which is another way of saying that I enjoyed Lori Love, the heroine of Start Me Up, and her difficult path toward the kind of happiness she had more or less given up on the moment she had to leave college and move back home to take care of her father and his car repair business. I did not find the book to be as strong as last year’s Talk Me Down, but it was still very readable.
In Talk Me Down, we meet Lori as Molly Jennings’s childhood friend, a woman whose tomboy wardrobe, no-nonsense mien, and skills as a mechanic earn her a reputation as the town lesbian. Lori has no real interest in changing anyone’s opinion of her, as the label gives her a certain amount of freedom from the expectations of others. And Lori likes it that way, because she is having enough trouble not living up to her own expectations of what her life should be to comfortably accommodate anyone else’s. However, Lori does have two strong desires that remain unfulfilled: one is to travel the world, and the other is to have a no holds barred, hot and dirty affair. The first was sacrificed the day Lori left college and returned home to Tumble Creek and an incapacitated father (her mother having long abandoned the family). And the second becomes immediately imperative from the moment in Start Me Up when Molly’s brainy, sexy architect brother realizes Lori is a girl.
Of course Quinn knows Lori possesses two X chromosomes, but it’s not until he sees her in a shapely blue dress with deep red high heels that he realizes she’s a woman. And since Quinn spends most of his time in a sort of intellectual haze, the shock of being pulled out of his self-absorption catalyzes a powerful but somewhat uncomfortable (for Lori, at least) mutual attraction:
. . . "You were just asking me about dirty things, Lori Love. Remember? And then Quinn walks over here and stares at you like a raspberry truffle dipped in honey cream."
"He. . . A what?"
"I’m sorry. That was too much, huh? Too erotica-y? Too much creamy goodness?"
Lori wrapped her fingers around the stem of her martini glass. "God, you are strange."
"Don’t change the subject. Do you want to do dirty things with my brother or not?"
"No!" Her brain seemed to vibrate at the word, like an internal lie-detector test. "Of course not. I just fixed his backhoe. That’s it."
"Got his engine running?"
"Hey!" Molly protested. "I could have said something about being a hoe, but I didn’t."
Anyone who has read Talk Me Down knows that Molly is an erotica writer whose occupation has only recently become public knowledge. Lori, who likes to read erotica, can’t help but be attracted to the hunky, Barbie doll dating Quinn, but she certainly doesn’t want to share that with Molly. Which, of course, only adds to the forbidden nature of the attraction for Lori. And Quinn, who has a terrible track record with remaining focused on a woman long enough to establish an actual relationship, is more than interested in volunteering for duty as Lori’s experimental stud, a position he learns about only when Lori turns Quinn down, wrongly assuming that Molly has told him of her interest.
Thus begins the unexpected dalliance, which Quinn juggles with his busy architectural firm and Lori tries to manage in the midst of offers to buy her late father’s riverfront property and mysterious incidents of vandalism to the garage.
In a traditional Romance, Lori’s vulnerability would bring out Quinn’s protective instincts, building the emotional bond between the lovers as Quinn keeps rushing to Lori’s rescue. In Start Me Up, however, Lori doesn’t want to be dependent on Quinn, and so he never hears about the danger until later, building tension between them through Quinn’s frustration over Lori’s distancing and Lori’s fear that if she started to depend on Quinn she would most certainly end up hurt.
In many Romance novels, I would find Lori’s attitude an annoying and artificial means to delay the inevitable emotional bonding of the couple, but in Start Me Up, I understand Lori’s hesitancy. After all, she has cultivated an image in town that has not exactly played on her female charms; her mother left when Lori was a teen; her own dreams have been deferred for less glamorous responsibilities; and Quinn has a history of dating extraordinarily beautiful, extraordinarily tall, extraordinarily shiny women, and he hasn’t exactly been focused on Lori in that way. It doesn’t matter that Lori is pretty and sexy and appealing – she has set things up so that most people don’t see past the coveralls and the greasy fingernails and the tough exterior.
So in that sense it was quite a pleasure watching Quinn begin to chip away at Lori’s self-image, and I found it believable and frustrating in a good way that she resisted falling too hard for Quinn. What worked less for me, ironically, is born of this same dynamic – namely that I didn’t get enough of Quinn to understand why Lori, of all women, was the one who managed to hold his sexual and romantic attention. NOT because Lori’s physical charms were perhaps a bit more petite than Quinn’s other women, but because slack jawed surprise merely opens the door to sex, and what makes Quinn want more is not justified merely because the reader may understand Lori’s appeal. In other words, even though I may be able to construe any number of reasons they work as a couple doesn’t mean the book has, in my opinion, done its job in effectively building the relationship beyond the bedroom.
Consequently, while I understood why Lori was both attracted to and a bit intimidated by Quinn, I did not have that same clarity from his side of things. Take the moment he proposes that she come and live with him after things really begin falling apart around her:
"I want you to come live with me."
"What?" She’d worried he was about to make a grand declaration of love that she’d have to wiggle away fro. But this? This was crazy. "I can’t come live with you!"
"Sure you can."
"I live in Tumble Creek" [note: Quinn lives in Aspen, across a pass that closes in winter]
"Come on, Lori. There’s nothing left for you in Tumble Creek. You don’t belong there."
Lori’s jaw fell open. He’d said it so casually, as if it weren’t her whole life he’d just tossed aside. "It’s my home," she forced past her tight throat.
"It’s where you live, sure."
"It’s my life."
When he sighed, he sounded exactly as if he were dealing with a recalcitrant child. "You don’t have a life."
. . . "You thought I could just move in with you, no problem."
He paused for just a moment. "Yeah."
In one sense Quinn is correct; Lori has put all of her plans on the back burner, not even picking them back up after her father died. But on another, deeper level, this is a guy who we are supposed to trust in his deeper than sex attraction to Lori who is seeing her here on a rather superficial level. It is a conflict in the book that was never satisfactorily resolved for me. And it reflects for me a larger tension between the upending of some genre stereotypes that occur throughout the book and a conformation to other genre stereotypes. For example, I loved the way Lori is acutely aware of her class difference from Quinn and his circle, and the way she can articulate that so clearly – "an exotic taste of the underclass," as she puts it at one point. And I appreciated the lack of judgment Dahl places on her characters’ sexual desires; as Quinn and Lori discover that they both enjoy power games, they are free to explore that without it having it reflect some deep psychological issues in either of them.
All of these things were refreshing and interesting, especially combined with the chuckle out loud moments in the text like the initial exchange I quoted between Lori and Molly, where Molly worries aloud that her description is "too erotica-y." Those moments of amusing and self-conscious referentiality become more significant the larger Dahl’s body of work gets, and they are a very nice touch. If only Quinn had been constructed with that same level of textual depth, I think Start Me Up would have been an unqualified winner. As it is, I found it an entertaining but not fully satisfying B-.