On the cover of DIRTY by Megan Hart are these three word: An Erotic Novel. Published by Spice Books, the story makes no claim to be an erotic romance, nor does it pass itself off as a work of women’s fiction with erotic elements. It simply states that it is an erotic novel. The question that might then follow is whether or not the story in an erotic novel should succeed or fail based on its level of eroticism. In other words, does the tale that is told need to turn on a vital erotic component, or is it enough that it offers readers detailed scenes of explicit sex?
DIRTY tells the story of Elle (Ella, Elspeth) Kavanagh, a junior vice-president of corporate accounting in the firm of Smith Smith Smith & Brown. The reader learns through Elle’s first person narrative that she lands big accounts, does lunches, attends meetings, but is never given a more detailed look at her professional life. Other than a fund-raising event in which she’s involved and her budding friendship with co-worker Marcy, there are no particulars about what her career at Triple Smith & Brown entails. As with so many other elements in the novel, her career functions symbolically to show how Elle has been emotionally frozen, and what the reader does learn is that counting is a tactic that gets her through stressful situations. One could assume from her choice of such a career that what she finds most stressful is life.
Elle lives alone. She is not close with any of her neighbors except Gavin, the teen with whom she shares a love of books and who helps her paint the dining room in her small Harrisburg, PA home. She doesn’t date, though until “three years, two months, a week and three days” ago, she did have sex with men she picked up, assignations “about filling an emptiness inside” and “chasing away the dark cloud” she was often unable to escape. She’s estranged from the family who lives nearby, and only talks to her brother on the West Coast occasionally. Her wardrobe is black and white, her house equally drab. She rarely smiles or laughs. She simply exists.
It’s into this existence that attorney Daniel Stewart, after a chance encounter with Elle in a candy store, finds himself drawn. Though Elle refuses to date, she agrees to continue seeing him. Though she refuses to call him her boyfriend, she returns again and again to his bed. Dan is every man, a regular man, one with a breathtaking smile and an eclectic selection of ties. Not overly tall. Not overly muscular. He is smart, witty, sexy – a man the reader has no problem imagining as real, and one about whom Elle thinks:
Sex had been a choice I made to ease an ache inside. I knew it. I knew why I did it. I knew why I looked like a librarian and acted like a whore.
Until now it hadn’t mattered. I’d met men who made me laugh, who made me sigh, even a few, very few, who’d made me come. Until now I had never met one I couldn’t forget.
DIRTY is a difficult book to analyze, and almost reads as two stories, the first being Elle’s sexual affair with Dan which leads to the second, her emotional catharsis. The first person voice, Elle’s voice, is distancing, her use of metaphor often seeming to be a literary tool of the author rather than naturally Elle’s. Her musings are not always comfortable. Her story is dark, her character flawed, the tone hopeless at times.
All of this demands the reader be willing to trust the author to deliver a story worth reading. Not all will be so patient as to wait for that critical pay-off, but for those who don’t mind the often uncomfortable ride, Elle’s journey is a fascinating trip. Hart shows her protagonist’s transformation from insular to involved through interactions with Marcy and her boyfriend, Gavin and his mother, Elle’s own mother and brother, and especially Dan. It’s through that relationship, one at first purely sexual which develops into one of uneasy emotion, that Elle slowly comes to terms with the incident from her past that has crippled her.
It’s a painful metamorphosis, a sorrowful one, and one Dan must suffer through as well. Witnessing Elle’s treatment of him is not easy. Neither is watching him take it. Yes, their sexual encounters are the stuff of men’s fantasies, but with Elle an emotional ice block, one begins to wonder about the root of Dan’s insistence on breaking her down. What about her has caused him to fall in love? Yet his being with her when she is finally forced to return home and face her demons, to deal with the physical life that was lost along with her own emotional death, is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. He is there for her, taking care of her without taking over.
As to the question of whether or not the novel’s success hinges on its eroticism, that call can only be an individual reader’s to make. The second half of the book, where Elle begins her emotional thaw, is a singularly compelling read, and interestingly enough includes fewer sexual encounters. That said, the erotic scenes which have come before are in a large part responsible for the reader’s investment in Elle’s personal journey, and ultimately play a part in its satisfying end.
You can visit Megan Hart here and buy her book here or here.