Back when Jane and I started the Save the Contemporary campaign, I found a reader who was mighty pissed that we’d recommended Talk Me Down as a contemporary romance. Why? In her opinion, it was romantic suspense. I disagreed – I thought the secondary story line operating behind Molly and Ben was not nearly as pronounced and spicy as the conflict between the protagonists themselves. I liked Talk Me Down – and I’m not a fan of romantic suspense on the whole.
So that may be part of the reason I didn’t enjoy Start Me Up nearly as much: the mystery surrounding the heroine is way too prominent in the story, and overshadows way too much of the romance, the characters, and in my opinion effectively undermines them both. I welcomed any scenes featuring Ben or Molly because even with the ongoing whodunwhatnow, they restored interpersonal tension to the story.
Lori Love, Girl Mechanic, inherited her father’s auto repair business and her father’s home when he suffered a traumatic head injury and spent years in a coma. Drowning in debt and having given up her dreams of world travel and a life greater than what she has now, Lori decides to take back one form of excitement for herself: the thrill of having a no-strings-attached affair. Thanks to her friend Molly’s erotic novels and the spicy writing of other erotica authors, Lori has been thinking a lot about what turns her on, and she’s ready to start her own engine. When she meets up with Quinn Jenkins, Molly’s older brother, and catches his attention – something that’s quite a challenge to accomplish, as Quinn spends much of the time in his own head, completely oblivious to everything around him – Quinn nominates himself for the job of stringless hottie with whom Lori can indulge herself.
Unfortunately, someone seems to be trying to scare Lori, or get her to give up something she didn’t know was valuable to anyone. On top of that, Ben has decided to take another look at her father’s past, because something doesn’t add up right. So Lori is on the edge of deciding who she wants to be when everything she thought she was is called into question.
Inside this book, there are some amazing moments. Dahl is capable of writing some wonderful scenes, and creating images that speak louder than the character’s dialogue, like Lori’s map of jeweled pushpins and Quinn’s 3-d model tour. The writing is sneaky and fierce and evocative and I savored some of the descriptions and phrases, like this one where Lori is ruminating about Quinn:
Quinn was different… shiny and polished from the constant flow of letting his own dreams wash over him.
When he settled into the driver’s seat and flashed her a smile, Lori’s throat froze again, so full of need that she wondered if she’d cry. She wanted sex with him, there was no doubt about that. But maybe more than that, she wanted a little of that glow to rub off on her bare skin, wanted to feel what she’d felt as a younger woman.
Her glow was long gone[;] now she just wanted a taste of Quinn’s.
My problems, let me bulletpoint them:
The hero: Quinn had the potential to be so much more than he was. I love the distracted genius, the guy who gets so caught up in his work that he focuses on nothing else and comes out of that creative trance unsure of where he is or what he missed. When a person with that kind of focus uses it on an object he desires – rwor. But due to the plot of whodunwhatnow, he doesn’t really grow or even develop beyond the distracted hot guy who does his homework about what Lori might like in the sack, and is left playing a supporting role, and at times acting as a foil, for Lori’s growth.
The idiocy: I’d have had a lot more faith in any of Lori’s growth if she wasn’t so blithe and clueless at times. I recognized the significance of many points long before Lori did, and I thought someone as sharp and business-savvy as she is would have caught on earlier than she did. Plus, two separate times she makes a choice to do something totally irresponsible that absolutely floored me, considering how otherwise careful and not completely stupid she was.
The lack of satisfaction: the resolution of whodunwhatnow is so unsatisfying and completely (and unintentionally, I think) creepy, I shuddered. Lori’s reactions undermined her strength in my eyes.
The difference: there’s a marked and jarring difference between Lori when Horny, Lori when Happy, and Lori when Scared – almost like reading three different characters. I didn’t think there was any cohesion between them, and I only really liked one of them – Lori when Happy is hilarious.
Finally: the discomfort. One of the things that Lori learns to appreciate about herself sexually during her fling with Quinn is her enjoyment of some spicy experimentation in the nookie department. I’m all for heroines who own and nurture their sexuality and who frankly admit to having simmering hornypants. But all of the scenes that played with bondage, dominance, and role playing take place after Lori and Quinn have had some sort of personal conflict, either a minor disagreement or a full-on moment of anger. Because of that, the scenes – which normally do not bother me or squick me out – left me twitchy and dismayed, and deepened that disconnect between the different facets of Lori’s character.
Even though I didn’t enjoy Start Me Up nearly as much as Talk Me Down, I will still eagerly grab anything Dahl writes, because I enjoy her writing voice, her humor, and her deft development of scenes and characters. I wish that the personal wholeness that Lori sought in this book had been achieved, but even with my disappointment, I look forward to the next book set in this town, and with these characters.