REVIEW: Asking for It by Lilah Pace
*all the trigger warnings* This book features rape fantasy and themes of rape and abuse. There is reference and depiction of sexual assault in the book but it is not perpetrated by the hero or the heroine.
What happens between the hero and the heroine is all consensual. (This was an important factor for me, so I thought it worth mentioning right at the beginning. I have no issue with those who like to read dub-con but it’s not my bag.)
Dear Lilah Pace,
When I finished reading Asking for It I was a bit nonplussed. I was also impressed. It’s clever and well written, sexy and tense. And also very confronting. I’m not the world’s most sensitive reader so I feel like if I’m saying it’s confronting then it’s REALLY CONFRONTING.
Asking for It is the first instalment in a duology (at least, I *think* it’s a duology – I could be wrong on that) – Begging for It is due out in September. Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of cliffhangers or ambiguity or waiting in my fiction. I like things nicely tied up at the end and I’m all about the HEA. This book doesn’t finish on a cliffhanger exactly – there’s nothing particularly suspenseful about the ending – but the main characters are not together and their story is not done. I would have expected to do a little teeth-gnashing and grumbling about having to wait to get my HEA fix. But I didn’t have that reaction. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next book but I needed time to process what had happened already. I don’t think I could have gone straight on to Begging for It even if that had been an option. I’ll definitely be reading it, but I’m glad of the break.
Vivienne Charles is a 25 year old doctoral student in fine arts at UT Austin. She creates art (etchings) of her own but intends to work in a museum or gallery curating other people’s creations once she finishes her studies. The story begins when she is returning to Austin late one night, after a visit to friends in New Orleans. Her car blows a tyre and she is stuck in the middle of nowhere without a cell phone (she forgot her charger). A man stops to help. She is actutely aware of how much potential danger she is in. He could overpower her easily and there is no-one around who’d be able to stop him. “He” is Jonah Marks (although she does not know that then) and he is a good guy. He helps her and sends her on her way. What is perhaps a little different about the situation is that all the while knowing she is vulnerable, she is also imagining what he might do to her if he were a bad guy. It scares her and it also turns her on.
Thus begins the story of a woman who is aroused by rape fantasy and who hates that she is. Vivienne was raped as a young teenager – the details of it are told in the book via flashback and they are terrifying, not because of violence (it is not violent) – but because of how (apparently) easy it was for the man to not only rape her, but also to get away with it. Vivienne believes the experience warped her erotic imagination. While she can and does enjoy sex, she cannot orgasm unless she fantasizes the sex is forced. Her last boyfriend broke up with her after she confessed her sexual fantasy and he just couldn’t get on board with it.
When Vivienne meets Jonah again at a party, he overhears said ex-boyfriend make a drunken embarrassing confession about the thing that caused the demise of the relationship. Jonah offers to “play” with Vivienne. He wants to pretend to rape someone. She wants to pretend to be raped. They are attracted to one another and they could each fulfil an unmet need the other has. Sounds perfect, right? Um…
Vivienne hesitates (as she should) but in the end, her attraction to this fantasy is too strong. She agrees to meet with Jonah (in a public place) and they set some ground rules. They have a safeword. They discuss hard and soft limits. It is safe, sane and consensual insofar as it can be. It is made explicitly clear in the story that their encounters are role play. They are fantasy. She can say her safeword at anytime and he will stop. He is actively concerned for her safety and well being. He does not want to traumatise her or hurt her. He wants to give her what she wants, while at the same time, getting what he wants himself, but he never puts his desires above hers. Never.
Don’t worry—I’m going to surprise you. But we need to lay some ground rules. You should know that I’m not going to approach you in any situation where you would normally be worried about your safety. Nor will I attempt to break into your house. You should always be ready to protect yourself, and you won’t be if you assume anyone watching or following you would have to be me.
Even so, there was one scene between them where Jonah was angry that felt like it skirted the line a little. Vivienne knew Jonah was angry (duh) and chose to play anyway. Because the story is told entirely from Vivienne’s point of view, there is never any doubt that she’s fully on board. She wants him to be angry. She wants him to be a little violent. He does nothing that is outside of their agreed limits and she knows she can use her safeword. But it was still uncomfortable for me. Frankly, I think I was supposed to feel that way.
I was interested in Vivienne’s conflicted feelings about her fantasies. She feels guilty and bad for wanting what she wants. Part of why she agrees to “play” with Jonah is to try and “fuck it out of her system” (a thing which doesn’t usually work in romance novels of course. I could have told her that).
Jonah and Vivienne have a series of encounters and, as things progress, they decide to pursue a romantic relationship as well as their sex-fantasy-fuck-buddy relationship. Things come to a head later in the book when Vivienne has to go home to New Orleans where she is forced (because reasons) to spend time with the man who raped her as a teen.
Just as Vivienne believes her sexual fantasies were born out of her being sexually assaulted, it is clear that Jonah has something in his past which has led to his own rape fantasies. The reveal, when it comes, is heartbreaking. I also felt it was a little overdone – the villain was almost a caricature, the acts so heinous as to verge on the unbelievable (or perhaps I just want it to be unbelievable). I’m not sure if this is spoilerish or not… so, just in case: spoiler alert
Vivienne goes to therapy every week. She has found a psychologist she connects with and feels she has made progress. I felt the representation of therapy in the book was authentic and that Doreen (the therapist) and Vivienne had a healthy and honest relationship.
“Hey.” She leans forward. The tagua-nut necklace she wears dangles from her neck, turquoise and brown. “It’s not my place to approve or disapprove of your life. You get to make your own choices, Vivienne. All I do is try to help you see things clear.”
“I let a near-stranger pretend to rape me. You can’t tell me that’s not fucked up.”
“Honey, I spend all day, every day, listening to fucked up. You’re not even in my top ten. All right?”
At one point in the book, Doreen asks whether it might be the case that Vivienne would have been interested in rape fantasy in any event. Implicitly, the book stands for the proposition that rape fantasy is not, in itself, wrong. The thing which makes this a problem for Vivienne isn’t that she desires the fantasy – it’s that her sexual fulfillment is so intrinsically tied to it. She cannot orgasm without at least fantasizing to herself that she is being forced. It doesn’t matter how skilled the guy is that she is with or how aroused she is physically. She cannot ‘go over the edge’ without the rape fantasy playing in her mind (or without playing “for real” as she does with Jonah) .
Jonah knows exactly how to touch a woman— where to bear down, how fast to go.
When she and Jonah make love, even with their strong physical chemistry and all the love pheromones floating about, she still cannot orgasm unaided by the fantasy of force. There is an explicit link in the book to the part the mind plays in arousal. It perhaps uses an extreme example, but I think in some ways this book is a kind of exploration of how arousal and sexual pleasure start in the mind.
I don’t know how believable or otherwise it is for Vivienne to be completely unable to ever orgasm ever except for a rape fantasy. I have no personal experience with any of the subject matter in the book. I’m sure others can chime in here. I guess it struck me as a little “romance novel-ish” (a kinky cousin to the “only my true love can make me orgasm” trope maybe?) but I don’t know if that is a fair comment. It may not be. It is specifically stated in the book that most rape survivors do not end up being aroused by fantasies of rape afterwards. Some do, but most do not. I didn’t finish the book thinking Vivienne’s reaction was common or usual but I also didn’t feel it was… improper or “wrong”. Vivienne’s description of what happened to her was scary in its authenticity. While I have not been in her situation, there have nevertheless been a couple of “there but for the grace of God go I” type moments in my own life. Her experience as a teen rang true to me.
I think it’s also important to note that Vivienne did not want to be raped. And Jonah did not want to actually rape someone. There is a vast divide between rape fantasy and rape. They are two very different things. The very last thing Jonah wanted was to traumatise a woman by his actions. In fact, this is something which becomes a very big problem for them and I’m curious to see what the author does to resolve it in the next book. I hope she treats the matter with sensitivity and doesn’t just brush it off. (Based on this book, I think there’s a better than reasonable chance of that happening.) There are some interesting things to be maybe teased out here about consent, honesty, disclosure and intent.
I’m not entirely confident I understand, even now, why Jonah has the fantasies he has. Perhaps that will be further expounded in the next instalment. Jonah is still a little opaque to me. I wonder whether we might get some of his POV in Begging for It?
I don’t know how Jonah and Vivienne can get their HEA. I’m hoping that the next book doesn’t wimp out and actually examines the issues between the couple and writes a convincing happy ending for them.
Asking for It isn’t really a book I can describe as one I “enjoyed”. The subject matter is too heavy for that. It certainly held my attention and I cared about both main characters (even if Jonah remains somewhat opaque to me). I engaged with the book and with Vivienne and Jonah. It was dark and sexy and powerful and chilling. It was written in a somewhat deceptive, easy-to-read style, even as some of the content was not at all easy to read.
I feel like I can’t really rate this book until I’ve read the next one. I’m sure I will come to view them both as one work. It may be my grade for Asking for It is in the way of a provisional rating until I’ve read Begging for It. In some respects, I feel like I’ve read half a book – even though I’m actually grateful I don’t have the whole yet. For now, it’s a high B.