A couple of weeks ago I read Delphine Dryden’s erotic romance novella Theory of Attraction, and I’m still thinking about it. This isn’t a review (willaful has a good one) so much as a reflection on questions the book raised for me.
I liked the book (as I did the previous Dryden novella I read), and that’s especially telling since it depicts a BDSM relationship in which the hero initiates the heroine into submission, and I am so f*ing sick of hearing about this type of plot right now. Dryden does it differently: the hero, Ivan, is somewhere on the autism spectrum, and Camilla is teaching him about social interaction at the same time that he’s teaching her about D/s. The interplay Dryden creates between those lessons is interesting. (Ivan is an astrophysicist and Camilla calls him “Professor” when she’s submitting to him.) Although Ivan’s dominance is partly connected to his autism–the control and ritual soothe his anxieties about intimate interaction–this isn’t presented as “he’s kinky because his brain is broken” but just as part of who he is. Camilla’s narration is funny at times, emotionally intense at others. I like Dryden’s voice and her nerdy characters and will definitely read more from her. But.
There were ways in which this book didn’t work for me, or questions it didn’t answer. I have this problem with a lot of erotic romance, partly because most of it is short–this story takes place in the span of a few weeks. But it’s also because the erotic part is often pure fantasy, which is fine with me, but I like my romance more on the realistic side. As a fun hot fantasy, this book works; as a believable romance that really digs into the characters, I wanted more, though that may not be a book Dryden wants to write.
The ending, as willaful notes, seems particularly problematic. I believe these two can have an HEA, but there’s a blithe “everything will be awesome” last line, and obviously the quirks of Ivan’s brain that make a relationship with him a particular kind of work are not going away. He isn’t going to change that much. I wish that had been dealt with a bit more realistically.
I had some questions about how the D/s relationship will relate to their romantic relationship, too; I’ve read a handful of erotic romances featuring BDSM, and they often leave me with questions in this area. I don’t expect fiction to be a primer on D/s relationships (there’s non-fiction for that). And I realize that framing this as two separate “parts” of their relationship, or two separate relationships, as I just did is problematic. I guess it’s not clear to me how and to what extent the D/s relationship will be integrated into their romance going forward, how much of their relationship outside “the bedroom” will be a D/s one. Maybe specifics will help clarify what I mean:
- Ivan’s been going to a club. He mentions it a few times, but they never really discuss it. If I were someone who had previously been in monogamous vanilla relationships (oh wait …) and I met a guy who’d been going to BDSM clubs, I’d have questions: what is he getting from this experience? will our relationship satisfy those needs, or will he want to keep going? (the implication seems to be no–he describes it as “a substitute for dreaming”). Camilla’s lack of curiosity about this aspect of Ivan’s life and sexuality seemed strange.
- There’s a scene where Ivan says he wants to do something, Camilla asks him not to do it then, he asks her if it’s a hard limit, and since it’s not, away they go. This really bothered me. Just because something isn’t a hard limit doesn’t mean you have to demand someone do it when you introduced her to BDSM, like, a week ago (does it?). Some people do dive into a new experience head first and whole hog, but Camilla isn’t presented as that type, so this aspect read more as fantasy than as coherent characterization. Readers talk about liking BDSM erotica because it makes negotiating and talking about desires so overt. I find it doesn’t always do that as much as I’d like it to. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where someone uses a safeword, for instance. I’m guessing that happens more often in real life (but what do I know?). Fantasy Dom always knows what you want, what you really really want, before you do so doesn’t have to take no for an answer, despite the lip service paid to safe, sane and consensual/the submissive is really in control. I don’t love this trope and it was a little too present here for my taste.
- Camilla doesn’t reflect all that much on what it means for her to be a submissive. That is, she thinks about it in the moment of having sex, but there’s not a lot of reflection on how it might shape her self-image. (Or maybe she does, and I didn’t pay attention?)
- Ivan says he didn’t introduce Camilla as his girlfriend because he sees her as his submissive, and that’s a more significant role to him. “Girlfriend” would suggest to him that she has somehow disappointed him. I would have liked more reflection on the meanings of these two terms for them, and on how much submission will permeate their relationship (it’s clearly not a full-time aspect of it, and I like the way Dryden signals the shifts between modes and how Camilla learns to pick up on them).
It’s a strength of the book, really, that the characters were so well drawn that I’m still pondering them and their relationship. These questions make me want to re-read–perhaps at a moment when I’m not so f*ing sick of hearing about D/s books.