The cover of Susan Lyons’ debut novel Champagne Rules depicts a nude couple, face to face, embracing. The man is dread-locked, goateed, and well muscled; the woman is soft, slender and at ease. It’s lovely; sexy but not gratuitous, erotic but not graphic. It’s also overlaid with an aborigine tint that mutes the contrast of the models’ skin colors and washes out the sharp lines of their bodies. This might be a random artistic decision—perhaps covers that appear to be a solid shade of eggplant are the new thing—or it might be that the color purple plays heavily into the plot—but this does not turn out to be the case—or perhaps rendering the cover models colorless is the publisher’s attempt to suggest social commentary on interracial couples: the skin color doesn’t matter; all that matters is the coming together of man and woman. Or perhaps the cover is shrouded in ambiguity because the interracial couple at the heart of Champagne Rules: Jaxon Navarre, a Jamaican immigrant to the U.S., and Suzanne Brennan, an Anglo-Canadian, are a couple in conflict over priorities rather than one whose story hinges on the difference in their skin colors.
While the cover is the publisher’s domain, the story is the author’s; and Lyons doesn’t duck or conceal the nature of hers and handles it with a skill and confidence that belie her standing as a first-time author. She labels her unique brand of fiction as “chick lit erotic romance” and that is as apt a description of her work as there could be. Jaxon and Suzanne’s story is highly erotic: they meet on a nude beach in Crete and quickly find a cave for privacy. Just as quickly, their time together is over and they agree to preserve the magic of the moment by not attempting to draw the time out. Four years pass with each moving on, but neither forgetting the other nor their encounter. When Suzanne is ready for another escapade—one that’s all about sex and nothing about her staid life as a vet student—she places an ad online seeking the man from the Cretan cave (during the initial encounter not even names were exchanged). Coincidentally, Jaxon happens to, on occasion, troll the Internet looking for the woman he remembers as a sex goddess. He sees Suzanne’s ad and despite the lack of time he has for a relationship (or any other priority besides making partner in his law firm), quickly answers.
Suzanne and Jaxon create “champagne rules” which means: no relationship, no reality, all that is to be between them is sex. Just like on the island. Initially, this is easy to stick to because they live in different cities, Suzanne in Vancouver and Jaxon in San Francisco and each is eager to see if the heat they remember and have replayed for the last four years was reality or an invention of memory. They embark on a series of sexual encounters in person, online and over the phone. The book actually begins mid-thrust (insert Starts with a bang! joke here) and throughout the sex is plentiful and graphically depicted while staying away from grittier, shocking elements that authors like Emma Holly employ with such perfection. To Lyons’ credit, and unlike some erotic stories, this book is not a series of poorly connected sex scenes. There is a story outside the bedroom (not that Jaxon and Suzanne ever enter that room together), an overarching plot that the sex fits into, but doesn’t dominate. The more time Suzanne and Jaxon spend together the more their lives, their personal philosophies, and their backgrounds begin to creep into their non-relationship-relationship and, ultimately, change things. Suzanne wants to one day settle down with her Mr. Cleaver: a responsible, caring man, who puts family first. Jaxon wants to succeed and is willing to sacrifice all to that cause. Each is simultaneously exactly what the other craves and the exact opposite of what they claim to want.
Readers familiar with San Francisco will quickly see through the conceit of a main character who lives in the City by the Bay written by an author who doesn’t write about the city with familiarity. San Franciscans and Californians statewide consider the shortened San Fran a slur and don’t use it (though not as big or awful of a slur as the hated ‘Frisco). Anyone who does use this establishes themselves as an outsider; as does referring to the Bay Area mass transit system as The BART instead of simply, BART. That Jaxon does both is more than a little unconvincing.
Lyons’ writing style falls somewhere between romance and chick lit; she lacks the easy sentimentality and foregone-conclusion plots that define romance at its worse, but she also lacks the dynamic voice that defines chick lit at its best. While Champagne Rules doesn’t fail, because fundamentally the writing is strong, the characters are well built and well motivated, and the plot is conflict and consequence heavy, the book doesn’t quite succeed either. There is some indefinable something missing—that something that makes fiction linger in the memory and coerces readers to say: “You have to read this!” to their friends—and that absence permeates. In the end, Champagne Rules is capable, though, regrettably, not compelling.