REVIEW: Willing Victim by Cara McKenna
Dear Ms. McKenna:
I bought and read this book based on the recommendation of another author. I was told that it dealt with rape fantasies and I include this warning at the very beginning so that those readers who have triggers will know what they are getting into. The other thing that the recommender told me was that the book starts off with Laurel watching the hero of the story having sex with another woman. Part of me resisted this and I didn’t want to read the story because of it but when I read it, it not only made sense, but in a large part, this other woman was almost non existent in that scene so I’m glad I didn’t let my initial resistance keep me from reading the story.
In fact, Laurel’s introduction to Flynn’s sexual side is with the help and permission of Pam, this other woman. It is the start of the whole issue of consent that pervades the book. Laurel is interested and attracted but she feels awkward about watching Pam and Flynn. Flynn is protective and while he doesn’t mind Laurel watching because he is attracted to her as well, he doesn’t want Pam to suffer.
"Curious is all well and good but I don't know you. And neither does she. If you freak out and go screaming about it all over town or the fucking internet, you could seriously fuck with the lives of two consenting adults. You follow?"
Laurel White is nearing thirty, living with two other girls, and waitressing in tourist trap in Quincy Market. She has an engineering degree, but she isn’t using it because Laurel is just floundering. She feels a bit dead inside. When Flynn arrives on the scene, she starts to feel alive. One day she’s sitting outside and hears a young punk hassling his girlfriend, getting physical with her. Laurel is about to do something when she sees a big, brawny man dressed in construction worker togs walk up to the asshole, pick him up and pin him by his neck to a wall. Laurel thrilled a bit inside at this show of masculinity and she chases after him, both literally and figuratively. She tries to pick him up and he shoots her down but she persists and finally he gives her an address and a time and says that if, after going to this place, she still wants to date him, she should ask again.
Caffeine prickled in Laurel’s blood and she decided she liked him, officially. She’d like to be seen with a tall, strong, self-proclaimed asshole, out at a bar. Or better yet, to be visited by him while she was working. She’d like all her coworkers to see him and maybe warn her that he was trouble. She entertained a teenagerish fantasy in which she was the only woman who understood him, the dewy-eyed lead in her own wrong-side-of-the-tracks, star-crossed-lovers musical. Which was idiotic given that she wasn’t exactly an uptown princess.
There is something completely charming about Laurel. I can’t remember the last time I read a heroine in a romance novel flirt and try to pick up a reluctant bachelor. Flynn is also charming but in a different way. He’s got a very attractive self confidence about him:
"Listen, kiddo," he said. "I'm a selfish prick, and I want to be the greatest fuck of your life and ruin you for every man who comes after me. But I'm not a mind reader, so I need some help. Otherwise I could end up as the douchebag who's got shitty taste in wine and totally traumatized you when you were thirty."
"So tell me," he breathed, right behind her ear. "What do you want me to do to you?"
Laurel and Flynn are true opposites in both physique – Laurel is pale, thin, weak whereas Flynn is big, muscular, tan – and personality – Flynn is confrontational and self assured while Laurel is uncertain and into avoidance. There is something magnetic about Flynn to Laurel and she can’t resist going to the address on the napkin at the designated time.
As I wrote on Tuesday, the issue of consent is pervasive throughout the story and it needs to be otherwise the very rough sex could be deemed an assault of violence rather than an assault of pleasure. Primarily because the story is told through the point of view of the woman, the assaultee, it’s fairly easy to see that everything that happens occurs because she wants it to. For all of the story, Laurel is in control even when she cedes it to Flynn. She struggles because she wants Flynn to be rougher. She resists because she likes to be held down. We are in her headspace, seeing her point of view. (I should note that while the story is told from her POV, Flynn is very verbal and open so we get to know him as a character as well). It’s easy to see what Laurel sees in and wants from Flynn. He’s very open and generous. As Laurel correctly points out, in sex, he really makes himself vulnerable.
He made a face then laughed. "Don't think a woman's ever asked me that before- I just need you to be here with good intentions, I guess. Don't make me live the rest of my life feeling shitty about anything I do to you that you didn't warn me not to. That's about it."
I loved the frank way that they talked about sex and limits, mostly led by Flynn:
He nodded. "You want condoms with oral?" He seemed to be going down a mental checklist and Laurel wondered how many times he'd conducted this interview.
"Should I, with you?"
"Your choice." He got up and went to the filing cabinet standing between two windows, returning to hand her a paper with hospital letterhead dated two weeks prior-‘a long list of tests detailing Michael P. Flynn's negative status for all things contagious and undesirable.
Laurel made an amused face. "Is this what you call foreplay?"
"Pardon me if I kill your buzz, kiddo, but this is important to me. Should be to you too."
Even beyond the characters was the writing. I liked your way around a simile:
They fell silent, sleep coming down hard on Laurel like a narcotic curtain. Clothes, covers and no-cuddling rules abandoned, she fell asleep to the rhythmic sound of Flynn's breaths against her hair.
The bar was steeped in a breed of nasty fragrance that'd gone unnoticed before the smoking ban drove its camouflage outdoors-‘restroom base with fry grease overtones.
I think in romances, we start off with the assumption that the hero and heroine have no attraction to any one but each other and somehow any violation of that is infidelity, but the start of the book starts at the very beginning of Laurel and Flynn’s meeting and their relationship, such as it is, starts out there. Not in instant love but attraction. And then it grows from there in a very natural progression. The uncertainty of the status of their relationship is part of the emotional conflict. Are they just fuck buddies or is there something more between them? And to be clear, there is something more. Laurel and Flynn become exclusive for the short span of the book and they both find something in the other that fulfills them, not just sexually.
The main drawback in the story for me is that right when the emotional part of the story started – the exploration of why Laurel was just floundering or what attracted Flynn to Laurel (although that part was a little more clear) – the story ended. I really wanted more emotional introspection.
The story, though, just so cleverly and authentically voiced many of the insecurities and the emotional highs and lows of meeting someone and falling in love. The story was hot, the authorial voice was great, and I look forward to more McKenna stories. B-
Book Link | Kindle | Diesel EBooks| Elloras Cave (cheapest at EC)
Gracious me! That’s the kindest B-minus an author could hope for. Many thanks for the thoughtful write-up, Jane… It still baffles me how positive reader response has been to this story. Take that, Greek tycoons! Your alpha butts just got schooled by a South Boston construction worker.
Now I feel as if I should point out to any potential readers out there that I write erotica. Duh, I know, but I write straight-up erotica, not erotic romance. Hence my books don’t guarantee readers everything a romance would, in particular, neatly resolved happy endings. I’ve earned a bit of flak for that, so listen-‘you’ve all been warned now. Here’s how I attempted to explain it in a recent interview:
My erotica M.O. in a nutshell is to write vignettes that take place during the most interesting point in the main character's sex life, explore whatever journey they embark on, watch them change, and drop curtain. It tends to give those happy-ending fans emotional wedgies, but that's how I love to write. If I tie things up too tidily for my characters, then I have no reason to worry about them. And if I stop worrying about them, they become forgettable to me. I like to wonder what becomes of them.
Anyhow, thanks again. Always flattering when visitors drop in to spend some time in my glib little fiction world.
*sigh* yet another one of yours for my TBR list, Cara. I was avoiding it b/c of the rape fantasy bit, but now it’s clear it’s just more of your particular brand of think-y smut. And I do love that, HEA be damned!
I picked up this book after being intrigued by the description in your post on reader consent, and I’m glad I did. I was hoping there would be an actual review, so I could see if my thoughts on it were picked up by anyone else. You laid out all the points I liked and agree with in your review, so I won’t repeat them.
I do have one bone of contention with the author. I love that this book dealt with a fuck buddy situation without slut-shaming Pam (or Laurell for that matter), something an avid romance and erotica reader like myself doesn’t often get to see. It was refreshing to see a woman be able to enjoy a casual situation for what it was, and not have her depicted as an amoral bitch or a vindictive harpy trying to break up her (ex)lover’s relationship with her replacement. Then you had to go and ruin it with a line about upset she got when she was told not to come around anymore, because the hero would be busy with his new ladylove. I think it was something of a disservice to Pam to reduce her to that at the end, and reinforce the trope that the nice, sexually naive girl gets her man in the end. I would have liked to have seen more of Pam (though what we got was pretty good for a novella). If you’re looking to write a follow-up, I’d like to see Pam get her own, not necessarily happily ever after, but story, be able to be her own person instead of a placeholder or caricature of woman scorned.
Your website bio lists you as an “overly enthusiastic penguin handler.” You a fellow NEAq alumnus?
This one leapt onto my TBR on Tuesday as soon as Jane said “rape roleplay,” but if it hadn’t, I’d have been sold as soon as I saw Quincy Market. Boston-set story by a native? Yes, please.
Hi, Ridley-‘yes, I’m an erstwhile Penguin Husbandry volunteer! NEAq even gets a name drop in the book. And actually, my evil conjoined romance-writing twin Meg Maguire is working on a proposal for Blaze featuring a heroine who does that exact job. After all, is there anything sexier than that seductive mix of vol-marinated neoprene and Virkon particulates?
Neat! I worked there in the Ed. department doing outreach programs when I was in college, which is longer ago than I’d like it to be.
I wanted to be a penguin volunteer for about a week – until the reality of neoprene and Rockhopper beak set in. Tossing invertebrates in buckets was much more my style, I think.
I’ve been eyeing this book–as well as McKenna’s other work, as I’d never heard of her–since you mentioned it in the consent post. Off to buy it now.
Just another example of everyone’s individual taste: this book sounded really interesting to me, but I was so put off by the hero repeatedly calling the heroine “kiddo” in the excerpts that I know it would drive me crazy.
I had a co-worker once who was a long-term NEAq penguin volunteer- Cara probably even knows her!
@Maura: He also calls her sub shop girl….I don’t think he calls her kiddo too often. Maybe try the excerpt and see if it is to your taste.
@Las: Hope you enjoy it.
@Grrrly: I see your point. Pam was such a nonentity for me. I mean, even while Flynn was fucking her, I felt like he was virtually fucking Lauren.
Great review. And kudos to Ms McKenna for pulling off what’s definitely a tricky context to put characters into — not just with the rape fantasy itself [and that’s a feat in itself] but the HEA standard. I’ll find a way to pick this up — don’t have an eReader, but there are books I’m willing to squint at on my monitor.
Speaking of squinting. The cover: 1] Are those real people? 2] And is that a nipple?
And I really like the author’s poetics re erotica: “…if I stop worrying about them, they become forgettable to me. I like to wonder what becomes of them.”
@Cara McKenna: I actually felt your relationship arc was very romance oriented, particularly toward the ending.
I will say that your comments regarding how you like your endings untidy worry me a little as it relates to your other contemps coming out from Samhain and Blaze.
Grrrly-‘sorry to let you down in the Pam department. Pam’s original role was wisely pared down by my editor, but she remained fully fleshed out in my head. And in my head, she’s an amalgamation of a few souls I knew back in my art school days, people with these fascinating outward free-spirit personas covering up deep insecurities. Possibly a case of me reading too much dimension into a secondary character. But I certainly believe there are folks out there who can maintain truly well-adjusted fuckbuddyships…though I probably won’t write about them. I enjoy making my characters miserable far too much.
Jane-‘never fear. When I write romance, I write romance. Plus Blaze would never let me get away with one of my ambiguously-ever-afters on their watch.
Maura-‘Yeah, Flynn calls Laurel all sorts of annoying things. It’s just how he is, I’m afraid. He’s a certain type of grating that we cultivate like roses here in Boston.
Yes! Exactly. I felt like I was just getting to the emotional resolution when it ended! Otherwise, I really enjoyed this one (which I picked up after reading Jane’s consent post last week).
I loved how Flynn called Laurel sub shop girl – something about it made me smile every time.
I did like this one but I always want a HEA (or at least a HFN) so, as much as I enjoyed the writing, I will look out for this author in the erotic romance category and not the other.
I want this book! I absolutely love the writing, pulled me in immediately. The hero’s dialogue is so fresh, honest.. Thanks for the review on this one, J.
I loved this book. As some others mentioned I picked this up after Jane’s post about consent. Its very different to anything I’ve read before. I will definitely be reading this author again.
Thanks for the review, Jane, and WTG Cara!
I love a story that does things a little differently, entertains me, and then afterwards makes me sit back and think a little.
(And a shout out to Ridley and Cara from another former NEAq-er. I was in the marine mammal department and subbed in stranding rescue when they needed me.)
Heya Jess! Fighting with every scrap of pun self-control I possess to not make a SEALs joke now.
I enjoy making my characters miserable far too much.
*snerk* yeah, tell me about it. I read Shivaree right after this one, and yikes! But in a good way. I must be a sucker for non-happy endings, cause I went right out after Shivaree and got Backwoods. :-D
@Cara: Maybe it’s because I’m from Boston that I found it grating. ;) I’ll read the excerpt and see how it goes from there. :)
I absolutely loved this book and would also have loved it to be longer- but I get what Cara is saying about the way she writes erotica. I like writing more open endings when I write erotica too. :) It can be quite freeing.
The Ellora's Cave Exotica imprint is straight erotica so that is something to keep in mind if you are looking for a happily ever after.
I was a bit leery of this due to the rape role playing (this could be a hundred different kinds of wrong if not handled with care) but was blown away by Ms. McKenna's writing and found the sex scenes organic to the story and very different from the fantasy-based sex that you find in most erotica and erotic romance.
Amazed at what she did with these two characters in a novella format. I appreciated the open ended quality as it is a better fit with erotica than a tacked on happily ever after and based on Laurel's issues I'm not certain that realistically she would be with Flynn for the long term if she ever got her own life straightened out, but kudos to Ms. McKenna for making them so alive and endearing that you want them to find their happiness together.
I'm scared to think what she'll do with a straight-up romance. Good kind of scared though, no safe word required.
Ha! Thanks for the kind words, Lynn. So unspeakably pleased I’ve got you living in fear.
I must say, the erotica genre lets me get away with a lot. Flynn never would have made it to the pages of a romance novel…at least not as the sketchy, swear-spewing, occasionally patronizing thug he is. Heck, his blue collar job alone might have made him unmarketable as an alpha romance hero.
And I won’t lie, writing romance is a challenge for me. Left unchecked, my stories tend to drift into glib and murky waters, disappearing into the fog more often than the sunset. But challenges are good. I guess we’ll all find out in April whether or not I hit the mainstream mark.
Thanks again to Jane for the review, and to everyone who visited for their interest in my book!
@Cara McKenna: So, possible hot mess headed our way in April. Looking forward to it.