I'm pretty picky about erotic romance, too. I dislike when contrived circumstances and the power of boner over common sense bring people together repeatedly, and so I don't read a lot of it. The tropes that work so well for other readers in erotic romance don't work so well with me, unfortunately.
The Science of Temptation series (while this is a review of the most recent novella, I will talk a bit about the other two books as well) balances the instant attraction between the characters with logical emotional and personal development, and adds human elements like awkwardness, shyness, and uncertainty. It also doesn't presume that the reader is fully fluent in all things BDSM, and each character explains in their way how the actions they take in the club they belong to make them feel, physically and emotionally. When I read these stories, even though I'm not into BDSM, I understand why the characters are, what they like about it, and more about how it works – both the actual wielding of whips and emotional consequences of giving and receiving.
One interesting moment in this story highlighted that skill for me (yes yes plot summary coming soon): In a scene towards the end, an ancillary character is in charge of the club that day – he's the DM, or “dungeon monitor.” In the description of that scene, it's noted that this character is usually a submissive, but because it's his turn to enforce and uphold the rules of their group, he steps up, and is, effectively, dominant politically at a key moment — not because that's his tendency, but because the rules dictate that they each take a turn as DM, and that they're each responsible for the safety and comfort of everyone in the group. I love the safe space the characters have created for one another (and how the safe spaces are paralleled and reflected in other groupings of the characters from story to story) and the degree of care each demonstrates. Their fetish club is only as safe and strong as the people within it, and that scene showed (not told) that the members are responsible for one another in honest and open ways. So even if I don't entirely understand the interest or the kink, I fully empathize with how important that club and the space within it is for those people, and like that they recognize that safe spaces require administration, and even paperwork.
So, plot summary. The story opens at a barbecue – most of the characters in the seres live in the same apartment complex – where a dude named Ed, who is grumpy most of the time, sees a young woman named Beth. He's so flustered by how beautiful and interesting she is that he accidental spills his drink all over her. Ed is not part of the fetish club, but he figures out pretty quickly that there is something unspoken that ties some of the other characters together (including characters from the previous two books, The Seduction Hypothesis and The Theory of Attraction. When he loses his phone for the second time (his gym shorts have pockets that like to jettison his phone at the first opportunity)(I have those shorts), he tracks it to the club because the phone is in Ivan's car (Ivan is a previous hero). Ed is blocked at the door by the bouncers, but Beth is just leaving, so when she sees him there, she vouches for him to temporarily enter — a very big deal, given the other characters' reactions – so she can get Ivan's car keys and free Ed's phone for him.
Beth is an interesting character. She's been a submissive with a man named Aaron for, as Ed terms it, “most of her adult sex life,” and she broke up with Aaron when he moved away temporarily for work. Beth had thought she'd been mostly happy and satisfied with Aaron, but had begun to want to explore being a dominant and had begun to find his dominant style and presumption stifling. Aaron's negative and demeaning reaction plus his departure gave Beth the time and space to explore this part of her sexuality, and when the story opens, she's not sure whether she's more of one than the other, but she has the club in which to explore, and friends who understand her and her kink, so she's safe and happy.
Then Aaron comes back, and she has to negotiate her feelings for Aaron, her feelings about herself, and the new attraction she feels for Ed, who is willing to explore with her once he understands what it is that's going in the club. Ed hasn't thought of being kinky, but he does know what he likes and what turns him on, and he's a very laid back person who is open minded enough that, after a few moments of “Wait, that is a dude wearing a leash and a tail….” he was ok to follow Beth's lead.
The risk Beth takes with Ed by bringing him into the club was surprising to me. When Ed first enters the club with her, she's confident. She vouches for him, she takes him to the office and has him sign a confidentiality agreement and a copy of the rules, and explains (probably too briefly) the scope of the club's purpose. He's familiar enough with it because he's read a comic that's set within the BDSM world (this comic also plays a role in earlier stories) and he's willing to help Beth out. He wanted his phone, but he also wants to be near Beth for a few more minutes, and so he has to trust her from the start of their time together. And she has to trust him, and her instincts, and the attraction between them.
I mentioned that all the characters are very smart – and they are. Beth is a professor, and Ed is a programmer who is also a math expert. I really liked this scene when Ed is assuming a submissive position at Beth's direction, even though he only entered the club a few moments before, because it shows how perceptive and astute Ed is in recognizing other people's behavior and also explains his own curmudgeonliness:
Ed’s basic view of humanity was that most people sucked. That was almost always his starting assumption, when meeting a new person. A few people turned out not to suck, and if they still liked him by the time he found out, he counted them as friends. This Aaron dude— Master Aegis— obviously sucked. He was insecure. He liked to push people around. He was all about appearances, Ed would be willing to bet money on it.
But when was the last time he’d hung out with friends just for the hell of it, or helped a buddy move a couch for no greater reward than a beer and + 10 goodwill points? Why wasn’t pretty boy married at his age, which appeared to be early forties?
Thinking of the early forties made Ed think of the number forty-two, leading to a brief mental digression as he recalled some favorite lines from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and wondered if it was time for a reread. Another part of his mind had automatically factored forty-two down to its primes, and thinking of primes reminded him of the thrust-to-weight ratio problem he’d been working on with his scramjet stage research, which made him think about escape velocity…
* * *
If she hadn’t known better, Beth would have thought Ed was in subspace. He had relaxed against her leg, and he looked blissed-out and intense at the same time. She knew the expression well, and it looked strangely good on her faux submissive.
I've read a number of books that reference “subspace,” but this was the first to explain what that is in a way that I understood it, both in a psychological and a physical sense. (I spend a lot of time reading these books thinking, “OH, NOW I get it.” Like I said – I do not read a whole lot of erotica nor BDSM romance.)
Here is more of Ed, just prior to the scene above:
She talked with her hands when she was nervous. He had only seen it once so far, but he could tell that was what was happening. He wanted to reach up, still her hands, tell her not to engage. Not to feed the troll. Lead her away, or at least intervene on her behalf. In his current position, though, he probably wasn’t supposed to do that. It would make her look bad or weak in front of the jerky ex, and that was the last thing Ed wanted for her.
Ed is so perceptive and thus very quick to identify the roles being played in the conversation, and he wants what's best for Beth, which is for him not to intervene and diminish her in front of Aaron, even though he'd really like to stand up and tell the dude to piss off.
Ed is also patient and very kind to Beth, who is working through the remnants of her relationship with Aaron now that he's back, and dealing with how his presence makes her feel. He's a wonderful, fascinating hero – and something of a switch like Beth. He can take control of a situation and he can relinquish it, too, with equal ease and strength. He doesn't HAVE to be in control (see: Aaron). I also liked that in the physical description, Ed isn't all hard muscle and six pack, that he doesn't adhere to the muscle-perfect alpha mold, and Beth finds him attractive exactly as he is. He's not fat, but he's soft in places, and Beth likes that a lot. (I did too – I get tired of the uber-alpha muscle-mold that heroes inhabit).
Beth does have to deal with Aaron, and with her feelings for Aaron, and that constitutes the majority of the conflict in this story. Ed doesn't want to compete with Aaron, and he wants what's best for Beth because he cares about her. He's steadfast and determined and secure in himself. (That's so hot.)
The problem for me (and why this wasn't an A grade) is that Beth arrives at her conclusion so quickly after spending many pages debating and trying to figure out what she wants. What frustrated me, though this is accurate in how humans work, is that she'd say or acknowledge that Aaron isn't good for her, but then she'd do what Aaron wanted, or re-engage with him in ways that undermined her realization. Totally something that people do, yes. But at the end, there's this One Big Realization OMG I Figured It Out and my reaction was not blissful relief but more, “Dude, it is about TIME you got there.” The resolution comes so quickly (hur hur) and contrasted too much for me with the painstaking and careful development of the characters and their stories.
I'm a little conflicted about my own displeasure, too. On one hand, the remnants of Beth/Aaron and the beginning of Beth/Ed (and the changes that accompany the beginning of Beth/Ed) are just the right amount of conflict for a novella, especially one that begins with two characters who don't know each other, and must go from meeting to HEA in the short word span. But on the other hand, Beth arrives at her realization in a way that disappointed me because it took her long enough to get there, and I thought she was a bit manipulative and obtuse at the very end. (Grrr, it is difficult to discuss the ending of a book without giving all the problems away). This is NOT an ending that sours the whole book, though — not at all! If anything, it's a minor step down when the rest of the story was fantastic for me.
The Principle of Desire combined a lot of things I love, like super-smart characters and terrific heroes growing in their own self confidence, nerd and geek culture, and visiting characters from prior books and finding themselves still awesome. I really liked this one, and I recommend all three.
The series in order:
Camilla can set her watch by her hunky rocket-scientist neighbor who jogs past her window each day. She relishes each glimpse of his shirtless abs, and is dying to see more. But it's hard to connect with a man who doesn't seem to know she exists…
Ivan feels at home in the lab, not in social situations. When he finally approaches his attractive neighbor, it's not for a date—he wants tutoring in how to behave at an important fundraiser. Ivan doesn't expect the chemistry between them to be quite so explosive, and is surprised when Cami actually accepts his proposal to embark on a series of “lessons.”
Wildlife biologist Lindsey thought attending a fan convention with her new boyfriend Ben was a great idea—until their relationship imploded. Lindsey still lusts after her ex—but if he wants her, he's going to have to prove he can give her what she needs.
Ben will do anything to win Lindsey back, and when he sees her in her skimpy black vinyl convention getup, he realizes what she's been craving all along. And he's inspired to finally give in to his own dark desire to take complete sexual control…
The Principle of Desire by Delphine Dryden
After several years as a submissive, psychology lecturer Beth is eager to experience being on the other end of the whip for a change. When she meets sweet but socially awkward Ed at a party, it's obvious the aerospace engineer is interested—and obvious he's way too vanilla.
When tracking down a friend lands him in a BDSM club, Ed's eyes are opened to a whole other world—and a whole other side of Beth. Then Beth's former Master shows up, and Ed agrees to play along as her sub in exchange for a real date. The biggest surprise of the evening? How much he enjoys letting her take control…