I am a finicky erotic romance reader. I dislike when characters start porntalking, when there is endless discussion of who is what for whom (I'm hard for you, you're wet for me, she's humid for the mailman). I dislike when otherwise normally-conversing humans start talking about their cocks every other sentence, and get very irritated when a sex scene of amplified raunch is shoved into a book in such a way that I wonder if there are stunt doubles playing the role of the hero and heroine for that scene. I often find the amplified sex scenes with minute details and explicit dialogue to be ill fitting with the rest of the story. So it is a huge (hur) joy for me to find exceptionally evocative writing and an exploration of sex and intimacy so well written that it all fits together.
Erin Coffey is a nurse starting her new job at a mental hospital in the lockdown ward, where patients have advanced and complicated mental illnesses that sometimes require restraints and emergency injections of sedatives. She earned her LRN degree while caring for her grandmother, who went through dementia before she died.
Erin is a relentless caregiver. Her mother, who is largely absent from the story, was a disinterested mother who kept looking for the wrong type of man to be with. As a result, Erin raised her younger sister, Amber. Erin's life has been one caregiving role after another: being the mom at age 8 when her mother was not, then raising Amber, then caring for their grandmother, then back to caring for Amber, who has hooked up with a series of crappy men, and had a child, Jack, with one of them. Jack's father, a sleaze ball named Damien, is a transient presence in Amber's life, and a menacing one at that.
Erin takes the job at the hospital because it allows her to be close to Amber and Jack, whom she adores and worries about constantly. It is a full time job with salary and benefits, something she's never had before, and it comes with serious levels of responsibility for strangers, another experience that's new to Erin – the strangers part, not the responsibility for others. She's living temporarily in transition housing across the street from her job, and her shifts allow her one or two, and sometimes three, days off in a row – something entirely new and wonderous to Erin. She is beginning her life over again for the third time.
On her first day, she meets the team of nurses and doctors in the ward, including one giant of a man named Kelly. Kelly's job is to physically protect the staff and restrain the patients when needed. This is Jenny, Erin's coworker and guide through her new job, describing Kelly:
The resident Kelly had asked about in the morning meeting, Don, was plump and pale, as chipper as one could expect of a middle-aged man at seven thirty. I asked Jenny why Kelly had inquired about him, of all the patients.
“Don and Kelly have a . . . special relationship. When Don goes into a psychotic episode, Kelly’s the only one who can ever seem to settle him down, short of a jab.”
“What does he do?”
She shrugged. “Nothing extraordinary. Nothing any other orderly wouldn’t. But Kelly’s got a certain calm about him. Like a wall. You can fight a man and maybe win, but you can’t fight a wall.”
Kelly is similar to Erin in a number of ways, and each similarity is revealed slowly. The book is told in first person, from Erin's point of view. Erin and Kelly explore their attraction to each other frankly and honestly, and Kelly is what Jane a little calls the caregiver alpha.
What made this book extraordinary for me were the way in which intimacy is explored, and the writing itself. Kelly and Erin are honest with one another about their sexual tension, and so sexual honesty is present for much of the story. But their interactions move toward intimacy with much more tension and resistance.
They are both unwilling to risk their emotions and their feelings, but unable to stop themselves from enjoying the temptation and release they find with one another. This is not florid, purple sex. This is raunchy, frank and unblinking sex between two honest and very real people.
The writing itself is what elevated this book for me. I was as curious about what scenes were coming next as I was about what words would be used to describe them.
This is the first page:
I heard the sign before I saw it, bent metal rattling in the breeze as my car rounded a curve.
DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS!
The directive was bisected by a ribbon of red rust, as though the sign were bleeding out from its bolt.
Duh-duh-dunnn . . . Cue the requisite horror-movie music.
But ominous sign notwithstanding, the road was quiet and pretty. Elms and oaks and firs rose up on either side, watery dawn sunshine winking between green leaves to the east. There were no pop bottles or old fast-food bags littering the roadside, those scraps of urban apathy I’d grown so used to, living in southeast Michigan my entire life.
This is Erin describing her workplace:
The station looked onto a plain room with beige couches and chairs, two big windows; a high-ceilinged space lit equally with overhead bulbs and sunshine, as square and adequate and inoffensive as a Saltine.
And Erin, describing her first impressions of Kelly:
Whether it was a dream or not, I was awake now. Wide fucking awake, and steering way clear of Kelly lest I ever lose my mind again. My sister and mom were welcome to his type, and all the pleasurable mistakes those men offered.
As for me, no thank you. All set. If you want me, I’ll be at the coffee shop, looking for a nice boy of manageable proportions with no scars and a basic grasp of feminism.
And if you’d asked me at eight o’clock that evening if I still had the hots for Kelly Robak, I’d have told you with perfect conviction that no, I did not.
Erin and Kelly's attraction is negotiated by Kelly's frank revelation of what he wants sexually, and that he wants Erin. Erin has to reconcile how much she wants him with the feeling that she shouldn't want him – even though she does. Once she can address all the reasons why she thinks she shouldn't, the tension between them is scorching.
He leaned on the bar, arm flexed, head resting on his hand. “I know you feel this, too.”
“If everyone acted on every impulse they had, we’d all be obese and syphilitic and a hundred grand in debt from the home-shopping channel.”
“When’s the last time you spent a whole weekend just fucking?”
I laughed. “Never. Who does that?”
“That sounds very . . . abrasive.”
Ultimately, the ward, which is a draining and difficult job for anyone, becomes a safe place for them both. There is comfort in routine, as Erin says in the book, and within the ward, she is appreciated, and her ambitions and possibilities for potential as a nurse are given attention by her colleagues. She's not stuck; she has potential.
The story's taut structure and timeline allow for a lot of scenes to reflect back onto one another with layers of meaning. Erin has raised herself to be a strong and functional person in spite of her role models, or lack thereof, and so has Kelly. Erin has been fighting those who want to harm her and her sister and nephew for a long time, and isn't effective at her small size and stature. Some people only change under threat of violence. Kelly is that violence in a big, scary package. Erin resents him for sometimes being better at fixing her problems than she is, and is mad at herself for needing him, especially because she believes that Kelly does not need anyone.
There is one subplot involving a new patient who has been suffering from mood swings and hallucinations for decades, and who is committed to the hospital for care. Erin observes this patient during his intake interview, and says she can't get a good read on him and what he needs because he is already so medicated she does not know what parts of his personality are him, his real self, and which parts are false additions to his exterior. Part of her professional process is to wait for those external medications and influences to wear off so she and the other people in the hospital can identify and treat effectively the problems afflicting this patient.
The same is true of Kelly and Erin, minus the medication. They each have habitual false fronts, images of control and assurance the wear routinely that hide their true feelings and their terrifying moments of indecision and feelings of powerlessness. They slowly reveal one another, until they can identify share their real selves.
Kelly is a fascinating character. On of the by products of first person POV is that the other party remains an enigma, filtered through the narrator. Kelly's actions and words and direct honesty about himself allow Erin and the reader to understand him. He doesn't talk about his feelings at all, but he is always honest and never interested in bullshitting Erin. He has a temper and he can be testy, but Erin is not afraid of him so much as she is afraid of the temptation he represents. He's dangerous, but not because he's going to hurt her physically.
I'm still thinking about this book, the language within it, the tension between the characters, and the way so much of it worked for me. I wish I'd seen more of their potential future, and I wish Erin had not always been so perfect in some situations – especially because Kelly is so very unapologetically imperfect. These two have a very happy-for-now ending, and I wished for more reassurance that their happiness and contentment were going to be longer lasting. But while I was reading this book, I was so happy to have found an erotic romance that was nearly exactly what I was looking for.