Dirty by Megan Hart
(Spice, $13.95, NC-17) ISBN 0-373-60513-7
*****
My concept of reviews is rather simple: ignore the rating, read the review. Never have truer words been spoken than in the case of the review Iím writing for Dirty. Itís a wonderful book. Emotionally draining, heartbreaking, the kind of book that lingers well after the reader has finished the last page. However, it is not for everybody, and I wager this is one book that will illicit strong opinions on both sides of the fence. Readers are either going to really love it, or really hate it.

Elle Kavanagh is a very good accountant. Sheís also emotionally dead inside. She enjoys her works, spends her days counting, and her nights having meaningless sexual encounters. One of the things she discovered in college is that sex made her forget. It made her forget her pain, it made her feel needed, wanted, desired, and it stopped her from always counting. This is, of course, no real way to live. Her mother is a shrew, her father is a distant drunk, and her younger brother ran away to California where he could be gay without listening to their mother spew hateful words at him. She hasnít had a real boyfriend since college. Then she meets Dan.

She meets him in a candy store and for the first time Elle finds herself transfixed by a man. She canít stop thinking about him. She had given up those meaningless sexual encounters, because ultimately they left her unfulfilled. Now she sees Dan and he excites her. However, Elle is running, always running from anyone who might get close to her, love her, actually give a damn about her. She wants Dan, but she wants him just as a toy. Someone to have sex with. Someone to have orgasms with. Someone who knows the rules and wonít expect anything emotional from her in return.

However Dan has other ideas.

As the plot would suggest, this book isnít for sissies. In fact, the depression that hangs over the story is often times suffocating Ė which is good since one wagers that is the tone the author is shooting for. Elle is the antithesis of everything romance readers have been taught about romance heroines. She isnít particularly likable. Sheís empty, hollow, and emotionally devoid of any sort of warmth. Naturally she has reasons for this behavior. No one springs from the womb like this, and itís this unfolding of Elleís life that makes the story. Sheís carrying the story, written entirely in first person, so either sheís going to work for the reader, or she isnít. If you need a sunshine happy heroine looking for love, this isnít your girl. If youíre looking for a heroine with deep seeded pain, unable to emotionally connect, and ultimately a woman who has to learn to let go, move on, and allow someone to come in Ė then this is your book.

Dan isnít quite as well drawn as Elle, but he serves his purpose. For a while one wonders exactly what he sees in her, why he pushes her towards something deeper. Sure the sex is great, and sheís beautiful Ė but is it merely a challenge? Wouldnít most men be ecstatic to meet a woman who just wanted to have great sex and nothing more? Why canít he be happy with his free lunch and stop prying into her life? Because while it is lust that brings them together, Dan canít seem to stop himself from caring about Elle.

Harlequin Spice is billing this as an erotic novel, which is partially correct. It is erotic, and there are a number of sex scenes. However, itís not what drives the story. Itís a way for the author to explore Elleís psyche. To show her grow, change, open up, and maybe allow some true emotion to enter her life. It takes her the entire book to achieve this, and when dark secrets are revealed, it serves as a punch in the gut for the reader. No, Dirty is more of a general fiction novel. A chance for the author to take a seriously damaged heroine and explore how she got that way, and how she works to overcome it. The sex serves as a way to advance the plot Ė which will be shocking for readers who think anything erotic is about nothing but sex.

Dirty is not a book for everybody. While it does end happily, itís a bittersweet happiness. We know Elle is better than she was on page one, but the tone is entirely different than that of a traditional romance novel. If youíre looking for sunshine happy land, this is not the book for you. Itís emotionally exhausting and challenging at the same time. As the reviewer, I didnít always like Elle, but Hart makes me understand her. She makes me relate to her in such a way that I knew this character. I knew everything about her even as she was hiding behind defense mechanisms and pushing Dan away.

Megan Hart is easily one of the more mature, talented voices Iíve encountered in the recent erotica boom. Deep, thought provoking, and heart wrenching, itís a story that sticks with you long after the final page. While it likely will fail among readers looking for fluffy escapism, or pure titillation, itís an extremely accomplished novel and one that deserves heaps of praise.

--Wendy Crutcher


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