Avon keeps trying to market Alisa Kwitney as another cookie-cutter Chick Lit author, but Kwitney keeps writing books that are just a little too dark and complex to fit neatly within the genre. Her latest release, On the Couch, could be mistaken at times for a Brava erotica book (and a very effective one at that), but it’s also laced with wry humor and insights into male/female relationships. With her continued exploration of the intersection between fantasy and reality, Kwitney is gradually distinguishing herself from the rest of the Chick Lit pack.
The novel alternates first person narrative chapters between hero and heroine. Marlowe Riddle is a wealthy but lonely psychotherapist who hasn’t had much luck with love or sex. It’s the age old problem – if the men are smart enough for her, she’s not attracted to them, but if they’re good-looking there’s usually not enough going on upstairs to keep her interested. So when she gets a call from a guy named Joe who seems to think she’s a high-priced prostitute, she can’t quite bring herself to tell him that he has the wrong number.
NYPD Detective Joseph Kain is in a personal and professional slump. He’s still hung up on his ex-wife, who is having an affair with a famous actor, and he was recently demoted because of a disagreement with his supervisor. Once a member of an elite task force on organized crime, his latest case is nothing more exciting than a middle-aged man who apparently suffocated by accident during a kinky masturbatory act. But for some reason, Joe wants to pursue the case to see if foul play was involved, especially when he finds a listing for escort services next to the body. When Joe calls the number last dialed from the man’s cell phone, he starts a heavy flirtation with the woman who answers. The unusual call girl who quotes Swinburne and calls herself Marlowe is interesting and sexy, but sounds strangely reluctant to keep talking. Joe isn’t sure after a while if he’s pursuing her because she might be a link to his case or because he’s personally intrigued by her. But after a few phone calls, he knows that he has to meet this woman in person and see where the attraction takes them.
On the Couch does require a major league suspension of disbelief from the reader. Marlowe allegedly lets Joe think she is a prostitute only because she has been told by publishers to “spice up” her doctoral dissertation, The Behavioral Effects of Masking Identity, with personal details in order to make it more publishable. Somehow, I doubt any self-respecting psychologist wants this kind of experience on her resume! But the dissertation is really just an excuse for Marlowe to give herself permission to release her sensuality. The book is extremely compelling and sexy in the first half, as Marlowe and Joe flirt, advance and retreat, leading up to a mind-blowing consummation. The book earns its R rating with some very explicit and occasionally kinky sex scenes, but at its core it’s about two lonely people who discover an instant, strong connection together and are both thrilled and terrified by its implications.
After Marlowe and Joe finally make love, the book degenerates into an on-again, off-again relationship with Joe increasingly acting like a commitment-phobic jerk who has serious intimacy problems. The second half is also weakened by an underdeveloped suspense plot and sketchy family issues. There is also some predictable broad humor; for example, one of Marlowe’s former clients turns out to be Joe’s colleague, leading to Three’s Company-type misunderstandings and double entendres.
But for the most part, On the Couch is funny and smart, with a savvy understanding of a what turns a woman on. As Marlowe reflects, “Sex, in and of itself, wasn’t particularly sexy. What was sexy was the tension between being honest and holding back, the fine line between tenderness and strength, aggression and affection, resistance and acceptance…What was sexy was an assurance that your desire was reciprocated, coupled with an uncertainty as to the timing and matter of consummation.” And although Joe occasionally acts like a butt-head, at heart he is looking for a real relationship, even if he’s afraid of what will happen when he gets it.
The bottom line is that when the front cover quote from bestselling author Jennifer Crusie promises that you’ll love On the Couch, you can believe her. Alisa Kwitney might want to think twice about letting her two young children (to whom she dedicates the book) read it until they’re much, much older, but she should have no problem telling them about the acclaim she’s gaining as an author.