March 26, 2014

Sex and the Romance Novel: Satisfaction by Sarah Mayberry


Someecard. Drawing of a white man, yellow background and a message that reads: I'll always be there for you if you feel like having sex without orgasm.
Source: Someecards

Source: A review copy was provided by the author.

Remember the Four Horsemen of the Tropecalypse? One of them is back, only with a slight variation.

Meet Maggie, our poor, orgasm-less heroine, who, after trying everything on hand (pun intended!), decides to get under the sexy, hung tattooist who gave her BFF a tattoo and the best sex of her life. Maggie figures that if his magic dong doesn’t give her an orgasm, nothing will, so she makes an appointment and accidentally tries to seduce the sexy tattooist’s identical twin, in what must be the most awkward scene I’ve ever read.  

But fear not! This is a Romance novel, after all, and humiliation makes for a great meet-cute. It turns out that Mr. Sexy Twin, also known as Rafel, is so smart and intrigued by Maggie, that he puts two and two together and realizes that, holy shit! She’s never had an orgasm, and lookie here, he happens to have the right tool to alleviate her ailment. That’s how they embark on a relationship that’s based on unconventional motivations, so of course things go pear shaped fast. The good news is that these two are mature individuals, so they actually deal with it accordingly. Well, Kind of.


Book cover. Close up of a naked torso with tattoos on his arm an right side of his stomach. He's wearing light blue jeans and the background seems to be an ocean.
First things first, I really, really liked this book. I’m not a fan of the trope for many reasons, some of which I’ll expand on this post, but is no secret that Ms. Mayberry’s book almost always work for me, and Satisfaction was no exception. It’s not her most cohesive book, and objectively speaking --or as objectively as one can be when writing an opinion--this book isn’t as good as her previousself-published novel. And yet I enjoyed it even more. I liked the main characters and their love story, the secondary characters were interesting and well integrated to the plot as to not feel intrusive or like obvious sequel-bait (although there was a bit of that too), and even the evil ex was interesting enough to make me wish she had her own book.

Pure enjoyment aside, however, this was an equal parts flawed and thought-provoking story. As I mentioned, the book isn’t entirely consistent. I was discussing the book with my friend and fellow blogger, Nath, and we concluded that the first half read like an Erotic Romance and the second half read like a Superromance. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but once the orgasm is out of the way, the book shifts from a story about sex in which the romance develops through the sexual relationship, to a conventional contemporary that needs external conflict to keep going. These two aspects aren’t at odds, and having lost the patience to deal with abundant and never-ending sex scenes, I was grateful to focus on something else, but there was something off and unnecessary about the whole thing. To illustrate what I mean, I present you the hero: this guy is charming, sensitive and self-aware, so in terms of character and personality I have no complains, but on the other hand, he’s a sex-god, tattoo artist, who also happens to be a millionaire, real estate developer. See? It’s too much.

And then we have the sex. We know that the genre has a fixation with penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex and with vaginal orgasms. And to me, this book was a missed opportunity to break those ingrained, potentially hurtful conventions. On the one hand, our heroine takes action and pursues a relationship that’s entirely designed to pleasure her. Yes, the hero is the one who provides the satisfaction, but she is actively taking control over her body and sexuality, yet in the end, it all comes down to PIV sex and orgasms.

I had a similar issue with Courtney Milan’s latest*, and I’m sure I’ll continue to have it. Romland is filled with sex talk, but the conversation is monotonous and not as critical as it could be. When we defend the genre to outsiders, we usually say that it allows women to explore and express desires, fantasies, and sex. But can we talk about a true exploration when the sex always reaches the same tired conclusion? Where is the variety? When are we going to take a closer, critical look at the message we send when we constantly portray PIV sex and multiple vaginal orgasms as being inexorably linked to romance, love and happiness? Is there no happiness to be found in other types of sexual relationships? Is there no satisfaction outside of an orgasm? Just as sex is a key element of the genre, critical discourse is fundamental for the growth of the community, so I hope books like Satisfaction encourage more discussions.

*I didn’t review it, but here’s my favorite review of the book, which also touches on the subject. 

ETA: The first time she has an orgasm is through stimulation of the clitoris, so it's not a vaginal orgasm, although he is the one doing the stimulation while penetrating her. I should have re-read the scene before writing the review. My concerns and questions are still valid --I think-- but I didn't want to be unfair to the book with my inaccuracy. 

Grade: 3.5/4 I don't know, so stop asking!!
Sensuality: McSteamy
Purchase: Amazon

Synopsis:
Maggie Hendricks loves her life. Great job, amazing friends. Everything just how she likes it. There's just one small problem. When it comes to sex, Maggie can’t quite get there. No fireworks, no screaming orgasms. And while she tells herself she’s fine with that, she can’t help wanting more.
When her friend shares the intimate details of a one night only fling with an extremely talented lover, Maggie makes a desperate pact with herself. She will seduce this man and if he can’t get her there...well, then she’ll hand herself over to medical science. A simple enough plan. What could possibly go wrong?
Within minutes of meeting Rafel Oliveira, Maggie knows the answer to that one: plenty. Rafel turns out to be far more than simply talented in the bedroom. As he takes her on a journey toward the ultimate pleasure, Maggie finds herself craving a lot more than his beautiful body. But can she win the one thing that will leave her truly satisfied...his heart?
Satisfaction by Sarah Mayberry

Small Cow Productions. February 27, 2014.

13 comments:

  1. Oh, I loved your review! I really enjoyed this one, too, but I agree with pretty much all of your criticisms of it as well. Excellent job articulating them!

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  2. I think in this book - Maggie is going to have an orgasm. That is a given. What I liked is the fact that is happens midway through the book - and then they actually had to do relationship stuff. Like - fall in love and work through their issues. I was happy the orgasm didn't come at the end with a - I love you - exclamation.

    That being said - the questions you ask - "Is there no satisfaction outside of an orgasm? " is an important one. This book is just a fun, easy going romance - but there is a lot to think about that question. Would the majority of romance readers accept a book without that magical orgasm? I don't know. I remember being at a panel at a romance book convention and we got to talking about books not ending with a solid HEA but more of a HFN. And so many of the people in the audience got angry - they would never accept a HFN ending. They want that I love you, happy ever after. And it surprised me - how passionate their reaction was to this. I'm thinking the same reaction, if not more would happen if romance books didn't follow the same orgasm path. I'm not saying that something different isn't needed, but I don't think it's wanted. (or maybe readers don't realize it could be good that way)

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    1. I think in this book - Maggie is going to have an orgasm. That is a given. What I liked is the fact that is happens midway through the book - and then they actually had to do relationship stuff. Like - fall in love and work through their issues. I was happy the orgasm didn't come at the end with a - I love you - exclamation.

      I agree, her finding an orgasm was the whole point of the book from the cover, the blurb and at least the first half. I think Sarah Mayberry is a great author capable of subverting our expectations, but I don't know if people would have embraced *that* book.

      Which brings me to your second point. Yes, I'm not sure if readers would welcome a book that deviates so far from the norm (and of course, the things we consider "normal" and "not normal" are part of the issue, right?), which is why my post was directed at everyone who is part of the community, readers included. I wish we would at least have the opportunity to try something different before deciding we don't want it.

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  3. Great review Brie :) You brought up excellent questions.

    For me, it was just the clean break between the erotica romance and superromance. It's really jarring because once Maggie has her orgasms, she goes on immediately to ask where is this heading. Really?! Ah well, I liked Her Best Worst Mistake better :P

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    1. To be fair, Maggie's going from orgasm to "where is this heading" showed her self-awareness, I mean, she knew herself enough to admit that she couldn't maintain a no-strings-attached sexual relationship without falling in love, so she wanted some guarantees that taking the risk would maybe eventually pay off. But yes, the break there was abrupt. I freaking loved the 2nd half, though! LOL

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  4. I wrote a really long comment and Blogger ate it :(

    In a nutshell, I pretty much agree with your review. It was definitely a novel of two distinct halves and the transition between the two wasn't exactly super-smooth. And I agree that it felt unncessary for Rafel to be ALL THE THINGS to be a worthy hero. (Then I thought maybe this was SM's nod to the billionaire trope. And then I wondered if it worked that way. And then my head exploded.)

    I would like genre to explore sex and intimacy and for the orgasm to be always mandatory. I'd like to see a portrayal of a satisfying intimate relationship where the partners don't always get off all the time but it's still good.

    Last year (or the year before?) I read that book by Stephanie Doyle (the name of which eludes me) which had the impotent hero. He had a bit of miraculous recovery but the thing whic got on my goat was that the heroine refused to have sex with him that was satisfying to her unless he got off too. It seemed to me that by doing that, she negated his experience. Without the orgasm for him too it was of no value. :(

    I think it would be a hard sell for a romance book to be completely orgasm free though - but I would like to see intimacy explored in various ways and a portrayal of an intimate relationship which shows that sex can be fun and good without necessarily getting there every time (or multiple times every time).

    There is a book I want to read which I wish Harlequin would digitise and sell to me - something to do with someone called Mac. Ridley talks about it in her "good books which treat disability well" post that she did a while back. Apparently the hero is paralysed from the waist down and so can't get an erection. I'm told the couple have satisfying and intimate sex in that book. I really want to read it for a number of reasons, including that one.

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    1. Reading Brie's review and your comment has me wondering if 'orgasm' stands for intimacy in romance novel language? Is it the evidence that 'true' intimacy has been achieved and that is why there is such an insistence on it in the showing not telling sense? Now I am wondering what intimacy means in the romance novel and if this highlights two issues (1) PIV sex is the only true sex and is a magic cure for what ails (2) a wibbly-wobbly understanding of intimacy as vehicle carrying change and connection and also the ultimate aim of the relationship. I also think I need to read Jodi McA's thesis on virginity.

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    2. Maybe some writers do this. But that wouldn't account for "sweet"/fade to black romance where orgasm isn't even mentioned. I wrote a post a while back about what kind of intimacy I wanted to see and why I mostly don't like fade to black, except when I do. (I'm contrary!).

      I think intimacy is perhaps easier to demonstrate (for me at least) with sex because it is an inherently intimate act IMO. While it may not involved emotions, at least to me, getting naked and putting body parts in one another/accepting other people's body parts inside your body = a level of intimacy. Often authors show this via sex and the developing physical relationship mirrors the developing intimacy of the romance.

      But I've seen it done plenty of times in romance without specific or much mention of sex/orgasm and I don't think it is always the case.

      I'd certainly like to moved to an acknowledgement in romance that PIV sex isn't the only sex - for example that oral sex is still "sex" etc. Most recently I saw that demonstrated in a book where no vaginas were featured at all (!) - it was an m/m romance. There seems to be more of an acceptance that sex is sex even when it doesn't involve penis in anus penetration and I do like that a lot. I think it reduces the intimacy and "specialness" of other kinds of sex if we only value PIV/PIA sex in romance novels. I think I'm seeing more of what I like in m/m but it's not always present there either.

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    3. Thinking about this discussion reminded me of my response to Cherise Sinclair's latest Shadowlands book. There are lots of reasons I don't like some of what I read in the Shadowlands stories (pretty heteronormative) but I realised one reason I do read her books is that a woman wanting good sex is just a matter of fact reality - no angst, no judgement, no hidden meaning, no struggling with BDSM identification shame just joyful pleasure in the activity with no great pretensions about this being the be all and end all of intimacy. In the latest Shadowlands book the sub struggles to/with orgasm and is caught out faking it. The experience and events that flow from this situation are a discussion of trust - she can't be truly intimate until she finds and addresses her own barriers to trusting others and being willing to be intimate. So for me this particular sotry about the exchange between dom(s) and sub being one of trust highlights the role of orgasm in romance genre stories as evidence of that trust. I do take your point about close to black and inspies but thinking about inspies doesnt the emergence of a shared faith provide the evidence of intimacy that orgasm carries in other stories?

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    4. There are any number of methods to demonstrate shared intimacy I think. Sex is only one of them. I'm sure a shared faith is another but that in itself isn't quite enough for me I think. That's because I can share my faith (such as it is) with others without having a particularly intimate relationship with them. That could just be me though.
      I find intimacy in romance novels in the dialogue - the nature of it, the depth of it, the willingness to share intimate thoughts and vulnerabilities and also other physical signs, the little touches and longing glances. In the right authorial hands, a mere touch of the hands can be almost unbearably intimate.

      Truthfully, my favourite kind of romance has all of it.

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  5. I'm not adding any groundbreaking thoughts here but I thought I'll add my two cents, after all. ;) Yours (and also Kaetrin's) review is dead on for me!
    After I finished this book I had no clue how to rate it. I loved the general idea of it but had some things just rubbed me the wrong way. I didn't like that after she had her first orgasm with him, she came really easily every time they had sex. I wondered if that is realistic? Like having unlocked the door once, it's now open for all eternity, so to speak. And wouldn't one try it then solo and see if it might work, too? But that was probably too marginal here. I also disliked that she made him so rich. Why? Just let him be a tattoo artist with an average income. I didn't get that point.

    I can totally see your issues with sex scenes, Brie. I'm coming more and more to the point that I skip sex scenes in contemporaries (I didn't here because they were really well done). They're so samey and nothing unique that they don't even enhance the story for me in any way.

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  6. Kaetrin and Claudia: I'm not ignoring your comments, I'll be back to comment at length as soon as I can!

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