This is a guest review from Dora, who has ranted here before.
It's actually been a while since I've read a whole lot of romance, so when I decided I was in the mood to try some again, I knew were to start. (And actually picked up The Iron Duke on CarrieS's recommendation!)
Before that, though, I had picked up the Crossfire series by Sylvia Day because I was bored and Sam's Club had given me a gift card, and what else do you buy to go with your chicken breasts and kitty litter?
I know a lot of people love it, and a lot of people hate it, though perhaps more latter than former now given the fact that she's spun what was supposed to be three books into I guess five, which left me in the weird position of not really feeling strongly either way about it. To the point, I guess, that I wrote this long winded review about it. (I'm still reviewing video games for a living, so every once in a while I go a little batshit if I don't get to critique something other than pixels.)
I was in a vulnerable place.
Having been too young and full of stupid to appreciate Star Trek: The Next Generation when it was actually airing, the series and I finally fell in a few months ago when I was looking for something to watch while I did my daily workouts. And now? Now mourning has begun, as I lay on the couch despondently listening to the only music that accurately encompasses my pain (country), wailing about “my Data” and “my Q” and “my Worf” being gone forever and ever while my husband rolls his eyes so hard in the background you can actually hear them clattering around in their sockets like marbles.
Naturally, the only thing that could distract me was terrible erotica.
Looks like the joke's on me, though, since Sylvia Day's Crossfire: Bared to You is actually not terrible erotica! Horrifically over dramatic and full of so many bodily fluids it's amazing there aren't more Bugs Bunny-style pratfalls as people slip and ruin their clothes, but really not terrible!… well, not all the way, anyway! Mostly! Comparatively! *nebulous hand waggle*
The book follows our heroine, Eva… somethingsomething, who has just started a new job as a personal assistant for an advertising executive (or something?) at the Crossfire building in Manhattan. There, she literally runs into billionaire playboy Gideon Cross, and the two share a bolt of intense attraction because of course they fucking do, this is erotica, we ain't got time for no Harlequin Romance up in here! Though Eva initially finds Gideon's blunt proposition a big turn off, she can't deny she's attracted to him, and eventually decides to sleep with him after they both agree that what they really want is a cheerful sexual relationship without all the emotional baggage… though of course “co-workers with benefits” never works out, and before long they're all making dewy eyes at one another and “Ah wish ah could kwit yew” and whatnot.
Happily ever after? Not quite. Both Eva and Gideon are hiding some serious (SERIOUS) baggage after some horrific events in their pasts that mean neither of them have what you'd call a healthy perception of relationships. When Eva is willing to bare her past but Gideon only seems interested in burying his, it's only the first wedge driven between them, and the gap continues to widen as Eva struggles to manage her jealousy and insecurity with Gideon's intimacy issues and complicated romantic history. Can two people who have endured such emotional trauma have a healthy relationship? Will they be able to overcome their own flaws when the past seems determined to haunt them? WHOSE CUISINE WILL REIGN SUPREME?
In a lot of ways, Bared to You has some similarities 50 Shades of Gray. Certainly, both stories share the same bones and the same essential concept, and even a lot of the same events. You have the sexy young girl and the obscenely rich and handsome man who wants to do unspeakable things to her, the sex-with-ground-rules relationship that immediately gets over-complicated, the dramatic and tragic backstory that drives the brooding male hero to be so very brooding, and so on, and so forth. Yet there are a few very important differences between the two pieces of work that, for me at least, made a big difference.
To start with, Eva is, generally speaking, pretty likable. Despite her family's wealth, she's neither obnoxious nor teeth-gratingly rejecting it to “be normal”. She is, naturally, immediately and wholly loved by almost every male (Day almost lost me when within the first page Eva's handsome bisexual roomate casually tells her how devastatingly sexy she is JUST SO YOU KNOW) but makes up for it by actually coming across like a real person. She enjoys watching Tron and Demolition Man. She likes cheap Chinese food as much as she does 5 star gourmet. And, perhaps most importantly, she isn't willing to let herself be cowed or intimidated by Gideon when she's angry, equally able to dress him down for speaking to her like a douchebag or just flip him the bird.
Gideon, for his part, embodies a lot of the more negative traits of the typical brooding stud, but what sets him apart is his willingness to try to change. He's concerned about doing things right for Eva, which in turn makes him vulnerable and opens him up for the sort of emotional growth many romance leads simply don't get apart from whatever curative powers a dunking in an apparently magical vagoo does for your emotional health.
As the story begins, however, he's kind of a massive douchebag whose unwillingness to believe Eva couldn't possibly be attracted to him manifests in some pretty horrifying ways. He comes dangerously close to being unwilling to take no for an answer, and even though Eva IS attracted to him, that's not the point. She tells him no, and he still feels compelled to put his hands on her repeatedly in a way that initially made me worry he was one heavy pour of bourbon away from being a date rapist. Sadly, not being as privvy to Gideon's inner thoughts as we are Eva's, all we get to know from him is the sort of one-dimensional sexual intensity and alpha male behaviour that makes it harder to care about him as a person.
It helps that Sylvia Day is, by and large, a much better writer than E.L. James. I've often said that 50 Shades' Anastasia should have been renamed to Toilet since she flushed so much on every goddamn page and was obsessed with feces (“Holy crap!” “Holy crap!” “Holy crap!” “Holy” I WILL END YOU AND ALL YOU LOVE.). True, you'll be sick to death of roots and clefts by the time it's over, probably sooner if you're a dentist or someone who transplants trees, and you might reflexively backhand the next person who uses the word “luscious” around you, but Day manages to craft dialogue that can frequently be witty AND moving, while at the same time have some sex scenes that are scorching hot with a female lead who actually, well, LEADS in many of them instead of acting like a passive participant or posable doll… though admittedly there's so much of it you'll likely wind up skimming, especially when the waterworks start.
So what's wrong with it? Well, Eva is basically a hot mess when it comes to relationships. She's got issues. Legitimate ones. Her history is horrible in an exceptionally dark way that made me wince. But girl is every bit as emotionally stable as Miss Piggy after a night of hard drinking at a drag club. Her tendency to dissolve into angry floods of tears after every dozen pages or so stops being understandable and starts being ridiculous, especially since Gideon, to his credit, is often genuinely distressed when he realises he's upset her and frequently begs her to, y'know, tell him when he does shit she doesn't like so he can stop doing it instead of having a complete meltdown and fleeing into the night like an exceptionally weepy Zorro.
It only gets worse as the book goes on, when Eva often seems aware of her own behaviour, but keeps letting it happen, and even goes on to blame a lot of it on Gideon in some fairly classic emotionally abusive behaviour.
“I told you I get jealous!” she screams at him after bolting away from him when she's feeling ignored, rather than raising the issue. It happens so often, and with such increasing frequency, that I found myself shaking the book and yelling “RUN, BRO, RUN” in the hopes that Gideon might hear me and go “Ffffff-huuuuuck that noise,” and maybe go get an Orange Julius or something instead of running after her.
I get it. That's the point. As obnoxious as Gideon is, Eva is just as much, and she's struggling to deal with the insecurities her fucked up past have bred into her even as she can't keep herself from lashing out rather than expressing herself. But a deliberately frustrating and emotionally unhinged protagonist is STILL FRUSTRATING, especially when you beat it like a dead horse and refuse to allow her any significant signs of progress.
But maybe the bigger problem is that sex is the beginning and the end of Eva and Gideon's relationship in so many ways. Day alludes to them spending time together that doesn't involve putting tab A in slot B, but never really shows it. 75% of their conversations revolve around sex (with the other 25% being tearful drama), and everything they do together is just a prelude to sex. Sex, as you know, is awesome. But when all you're given of a couple's interaction is just the SQUISH SQUISH SQUISH, it makes all those endless proclamations of love and being soulmates and having an intimate connection feel like they ring a bit hollow. “You're all I think of… you're everything to me!” Fucking why? Does her vagina dispense Skittles? Can his wiener be used to charge your mobile phone?
But on the OTHER hand, admittedly a lot of that is sort of the point towards the end of the book. Gideon and Eva discover that psychological trauma can't be healed with sex and the sheer intensity of their passion, which is a far more responsible story to be telling readers, and they find themselves forced to confront both their pasts and their insecurities, which they both struggle to do because hey, that sucks and hurts, whereas sex is awesome and feels good. Sex becomes a crutch to them, something they can safely retreat to whenever emotions become too big or too complicated, and eventually they're forced to admit that not only is that not enough, but they're going to self-destruct in the process.
The question, of course, is whether you'll still like them by then and the book drags on and on and on and on and ON with so much godawful “my feewwings aw huwt” tripe between the two of them sandwich in more repetitive sex that it's hard to get involved in the people they're supposed to be, that the book WANTS you to want them to be. Eva throws so many jealous manipulative fits and Gideon shuts down so many times that it just gets sad. And not “Wow, I'm really feeling for these two tortured souls” sad, but “Folks, I think we can all admit none of us picks up a good book about hot fuckin' looking to feel depressed” sad.
Ultimately, Bared to You earns some points for its decision to tackle two psychologically wounded lovers and not treat sex and the abstract concept of “true love” as a band-aid, though its decision to fall back on tired tropes and to get the drama train going with a new hissy fit every other page to pad its length. I shouldn't be rolling my eyes and miming jerking off every time Gideon and Eva have some fight about FEELINGS, largely because it happens so damn often and that's hard on the wrist and my work on the computer means I can't afford to get carpal tunnel.
I'm not saying you should be able to wrap everything up in a neat little bow, especially not since this is (or was planned to be but isn't now or whatever) a trilogy. But I should get to the end and at least feel like some progress has been made rather than as though Eva and Gideon were burrowing deeper like contentious horny badgers. Watching characters develop and mature is one thing, and believing it can happen is another, and sadly Bared to You fails miserably at both.