That's how I felt as I prepared to dive into my ARC of author Bryn Donovan's debut romance, An Experienced Mistress. Granted, I wasn't totally prejudiced--after all, it was I who'd sought out the advance copy (which Bryn so kindly provided in e-format). Thanks in large part to Lauren Weisberger's novel Everyone Worth Knowing (which I find the least painful of her work), I know that the romance genre gets a lot more crap than it deserves. Romances aren't just about bodice-ripping, y'all: the good ones are well, very very good, and are both read and written by intelligent women. I'm not even talking about Danielle Steele (ugh), but the little trade paperbacks that always pique my curiosity at Borders but I'm always kind of afraid to go near. Which, if the comments in this Jezebel post are to be believed, is pretty silly of me.
Still, as I sat down after a long weekend day at work with my ARC, I had some reservations. Not about the writing style: if Bryn's blog was any indication, the writing would be great. I just worried I wouldn't be able to get into it--I'm not much for historical, well, anything, and . . . um, sex scenes. I fretted that the repressed Catholic schoolgirl in me (who like a plaid-clad Tourette's sufferer, tends to pop out when I least want her to) would blush and giggle at words such as "nipple." (Mature, I know.) Also, it's a tricky thing reviewing a book written by someone you consider a friend--I want to help her sell more copies, but I want to be fair as well.
Warning to my mother: don't read this next sentence.
As it happened, my first foray into the world of romance novels was much like sex: where you worry and wait and plan and it's a little weird at first but if you stick with it, can be extremely enjoyable.
Mom, you can start reading again.
Because once I swallowed (heh) my fear of romances, I enjoyed the hell out of An Experienced Mistress.
Set in post-Crimean War London, An Experienced Mistress follows Will, a former soldier who comes home to find his fiancee married to another man, and Genevieve, a smart and independent bohemian who is having trouble selling her art because--gasp!--she's a WOMAN and LADIES do not paint naked people!
Basically, Will is a nice guy who hasn't had sex in two years and through a misunderstanding (that doesn't feel Three's Company-esque at all) comes to believe that Genevieve is a courtesan. He propositions Gen, who eventually figures out what he's really asking for--she at first thinks he's requesting art lessons--but decides just to go with it, as a) she could use the extra money, and b) though she's really not experienced in "the art of love," she's mad attracted to Will and figures she can take it slow with him and have some fun. Naturally, what starts as a business transaction gets way complicated when Will and Genevieve develop physical AND emotional feelings for one another, and wackiness ensues.
You guys, this book is so fun. I wish more fiction (and TV and films) had characters like Genevieve. She's tough, witty and doesn't take crap from men. She is a good friend to her fellow painter pal Ruth (what, women can be FRIENDS and not always fighting over a dude? Color me shocked!), and has a supportive peer group of artists, including a guy who is probably gay. (He's old and has a male roommate, so . . . yeah.) Her dad is a liberal activist who's currently in the States working with abolitionists.
It hasn't been all perfect for Genevieve, however: she lost her virginity to a jerk, when she wasn't married, and people found out and gossiped about it. And she questions the idea of being a paid escort, as most sane women would. That said, it's fun to read about Genevieve growing into her relationship with Will and her confidence in her own art.
And her sexuality, of course.
This summer, I penned my first sex scene and learned firsthand that writing about sex is really, really hard (pun intended because I'm twelve, sorry). Even if you're not snorting or flushing at every other word (again, I'm twelve), sex is . . . weird. Body parts are anywhere and everywhere and clothes are off and it's intensely personal. At the same time, sex is universal and it's the writer's job to make the reader identify with the characters' experience (good or bad) without feeling like a voyeur.
Unfortunately, the idea of women having orgasms is still woefully underrepresented in contemporary fiction. (Don't even get me started on TV and movies.) Which is why An Experienced Mistress was so refreshing, and partly why I've started seeking out more romances (suggestions are welcome in the comments! Also, Laura Kinsale's Lessons in French FTW!). Genevieve enjoys herself many, many times--hell, Will even comes prepared so she won't "conceive." What a guy (and I mean that, considering there were no Walgreens in nineteenth-century Britain). And these scenes are so beautifully and clearly written, that after a while I stopped feeling embarrassed and started feeling something else entirely.
It ain't just the sex, either, but the lover. As well as outta sight intimate times, Genevieve and Will share a genuine intellectual connection. Remember that women's brains and accomplishments were grossly under-appreciated in 1855. Will not only recognizes that Genevieve can match him wit for wit, but he genuinely admires and encourages her artistic talent. Yet their relationship is not the type of ooey-gooey shit that makes me want to stick my finger down my throat and go laugh at the smug dorks on this site.
My two cents? When An Experienced Mistress is released this June, go buy it. If your bookstore doesn't have it, order it or hit up Amazon. The publishing industry's at a crossroads and selling books is a tough business for an author. Why not support a woman who has the chops?
To read my interview with Bryn, click here!
Next week, I journey to the YA world and interview author Susane Colasanti. Stay tuned!