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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?"

"Stop it."

"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-.

~ Janet

This book can be purchased at Amazon or in ebook format from Sony or other etailers.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

8 Comments

  1. KeriM
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 05:20:46

    I cannot wait to get this book on Friday! I liked Lori and am really excited about reading her and Quinn’s story.

    ReplyReply

  2. joanne
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 07:06:42

    This is a keeper for me. There are very, very few contemporary romances that I want to re-read in the future but the dialogue in this one was everything I ever hope for in a story.

    I didn’t have the same reaction since I felt like I got to ‘see’ Quinn very well indeed. He had found a best friend and a fantasy lover all rolled up into Lori Love.

    There were so many funny moments that I could forgive the mystery that was, for me, the weakest part of the book. I didn’t care. I laughed and was reminded that I shouldn’t “go toward the light”…. so funny!

    I look forward to the next installment from Tumble Creek where it seems like an awful lot of wonderful women go to hide.

    ReplyReply

  3. may
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 08:08:09

    “entertaining but not fully satisfying” is how I’d describe it as well. I am a *major* VD (uh, that’d be victoria dahl) fan… but this one missed the mark for me. B- is fair grade – I rank it about C+.

    The ‘mystery’ wasn’t exciting, and I never got invested in what happened to Lori & Quinn. I enjoyed (as always) V.D.’s sex scenes and moments – but there was just an it factor missing. I almost felt like it was too similar to talk me down (lots of sex, lots of talk about sex, (mystery) someone ‘after’ heroine who is miss independant, and very straight laced hero)

    That said, I’m lining up for Jane’s story. I think maybe this one just wasn’t for me, but I’m betting I love her next.

    ReplyReply

  4. Robin
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 23:32:25

    @KeriM: I hope you like it. As I said in my review, Lori was definitely the strength of the novel for me, as were the conversations between her and Molly.

    @joanne: Part of my problem, I think, was that I didn’t get a strong sense of who Quinn was beyond a) hunky, b) immersed in his imagination, and c) cultured and educated. There were hints of more but not enough for me, which in turn made it tough for me to see *why* he fell so hard for Lori. I could figure it out, but I didn’t feel it strongly enough in the text.

    @may: Oh, I am so looking forward to Jane’s book, too!

    ReplyReply

  5. Moth
    Jul 03, 2009 @ 11:31:04

    I really like Victoria Dahl. I think she is hilarious. I got this book yesterday and finished it in one sitting. I agree it doesn’t quite live up to Start Me Up. I think part of that is that Quinn is no Ben. I think my biggest problem was, as you said, we don’t really get to know Quinn outside the bedroom. So much of his onscreen relationship time has them exploring kinky sex. So, when he’s in the bedroom a lot of the time its role-playing or play-acting, he’s becoming Lori’s “ideal lover”. As a result we don’t, I think, get to really see the “real Quinn”. Does that make sense?

    That said, I did enjoy this a lot. I think Dahl’s a very talented, very funny writer, and her sex scenes are so freaking steamy.

    Of course, my favorite parts of the book, are the jokes. One of my fav parts from the book was this exchange between Lori and Quinn before their first time:

    “Where are we going to do this?”

    Do this? You’ve got a nice way of making a boy feel special, you know that?”

    …”I know I’m being rude, but I just need to get through this first time, you know? Oh God,…I’m turning into a monster.”

    “I do feel sort of like a harem girl being called up for the sultan’s latest pleasure.”

    So freaking funny!

    I think I’m going to try some of her historicals now, to tide me over until Lead Me On.

    ReplyReply

  6. KeriM
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 11:38:49

    I really enjoyed the book and am looking forward to the next book in the series. I agree with what was said about Quinn and wish we had a little bit more insight to him. Is VD taking lessons from Kristan Higgins (ala hunky and silent Malone) :-) There were alot of laugh out load moments of the book between her and Quinn and her and Molly that had me turning pages as fast as I could.

    ReplyReply

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