The Seen Trilogy by Cynthia Sax is three erotic novellas featuring an exhibitionist heroine and voyeur hero. I’ve never really understood exhibitionism, the same way I’ve never really understood why people (celebrities especially) make sex tapes.
It’s like 1. you’re gonna realize you have cellulite in places you didn’t think you did and 2. unless you use a set I’d be all like, “Fuck, I forgot to dust the bedside table. Is that a receipt from Barnes and Noble? Did I need that? Crap. Wow I really need to paint the bedroom again.”
But even though I didn’t identify with the fetish in these books, I quite liked them. The writing had almost a fairy tale quality to it, creating an alternate LA for the heroine to traverse, and I found myself liking the characters, even if they were a bit two-dimensional. I would have loved these books had I been given more insight into the hero, Blaine, who felt like he had more to him than Sax revealed.
The first novella, He Watches Me, introduces the reader to Anna Sampson. Anna is mansion-sitting in Beverly Hills for a famous plastic surgeon, an arrangement that gives her free housing provided she covers the utilities. She’s a recent college graduate, struggling to make ends meet while working in a phone bank for a non-profit, Feed Your Hungry.
One night, restless from the heat, Anna sneaks over the mansion next door and goes skinny dipping the pool. She believes the owner, tech giant Gabriel Blaine, is away. While enjoying her elicit swim, Anna masturbates, fantasizing that she’s being watched—by her sexy coworker, Michael, by Blaine, even by an alien up in the starry sky (no, for reals, a purple alien. I didn’t get it either). She’s shocked when Blaine does appear, having watched her from the shadows.
Anna learns that Blaine has seen her late night swims via his security cameras while he was away on business. The idea of being watched thrills Anna. Throughout the series Anna struggles with feeling invisible. In Sax’s hyperbolic LA world of busty blondes, she is a flat-chested brunette. She hides behind baggy clothes, ignored by her coworkers, her boss, even the bus driver. When she is noticed she feels like an outsider, unaccepted.
Blaine does see Anna, and he finds her beautiful, referring to her as nymph. He gives her a golden key to his gate, allowing her to access his pool, where he will continue to watch her. Anna is distrustful of men, actually of people in general. Her mother walked out on her, and her father died in prison. She has serious abandonment issues. She also believes people will judge her if they know about her past. Being seen and appreciated by Blaine is exhilarating for her on a physical and emotional level.
She allows Blaine to watch her, but not touch her. He honors her trust by respecting her boundaries. He’s like a sexy phantom, lurking in the shadows, giving Anna control. Blaine’s intense fascination with Anna, the fact that he finds her so sexy, bolsters her. She “accept[s] my body as Blaine accepts it, with kindness, with desire.” (Sax 58). I quite liked that aspect of this book. In this trilogy the kink isn't all about eroticism, it's also about empowerment.
As the series progresses into He Touches Me and He Claims Me, Anna begins to yearn for a more traditional relationship with Blaine. She comes to find that he spent time in prison for hacking, meaning he doesn't judge her for having a convict father. When Anna allows Blaine to touch her it's as much about trust as desire. Throughout the second and third book Blaine holds back from her physically, fearful of losing control with her (although it's never explained what will happen if he does lose control). At some points in the books they allow others to watch them have sex, keeping with the exhibitionism theme. Since this is fiction, nobody has a weird orgasm face or back hair, so it's all good.
Most of the erotic romance I’ve read has featured dominants and submissives, specifically the billionaire tycoon dominant niche of the genre. I think I found The Seen Trilogy a refreshing departure from Christian Greys who control what their partners eat, wear and experience sexually. Blaine is really easy-going for a billionaire-tycoon-alpha-hottie; he rarely demands anything of Anna. He’s content simply to observe her in an almost worshipful way, but he still maintains his alpha badassery somehow (I think it's because he smokes a cigar). There is a little bit of the “billionaire saving the day” thing, though. Although Blaine doesn’t offer Anna any specific financial assistance in the first book, her association with him and his money prevents her from getting fired. In He Touches Me Anna is hired by Blaine’s personal assistant, Fran, although the reader is told that Blaine had nothing to do with the decision.
At first I struggled with He Sees Me a little bit because the world seemed entirely sketched out in black and white. There are the beautiful and entitled people Anna seems surrounded with, and then there are outsiders like Anna. I didn’t feel so much that these were really people as archetypes, so much so that not all of them have names (not initially anyway). Anna’s boss is just called Boss Man, her coworker is Goth Girl until later in the series.
Also Anna works at the shittiest non-profit ever. I’ve done non-profit work and my experience wasn’t nearly so bad. She sits in a large room with other drones, dialing for dollars, struggling to reach a donor to save her job. People seem to be fired with relish, and the staff is made up again of beautiful, rich LA folk and downtrodden outsiders. It’s boobs vs no-boobs, peroxide vs au naturale in a battle to the bitter end. It read a little bit like the call center from hell mixed with your high school lunch room, tables of popular kids sneering. Basisally Feed Your Hungry read like a set from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Part of this series deals with Anna wanting to be part of this group, but accepting that she belongs to a different social culture and that’s okay. Blaine’s history as an ex-con, and his acceptance of her kinks, help Anna feel secure in her own skin.
Also Anna is poor. Super poor, eating peanut butter samples that came in the mail for lunch because she can’t afford food. She lives in a mansion in Beverly Hills, surrounded by luxury, but not a part of it. She literally starves while surrounded by excess. The difference in circumstances was so extreme it felt a little exaggerated and otherworldly.
In the end the archetypes, Anna’s poverty, the painting the setting in broad brushstrokes rather than shades of gray (that was not an intentional reference, I swear) worked for me. It read a little like a fairy tale. The heroine is an outsider, forced to decide which world she wants to live in. There are good guys, bad guys, and they’re easy to identify. We know Anna will come out on top, princess of her own little fetish-exhibitionist kingdom.
My big issue with the series was how little we find out about Blaine. We know he spent time in prision for hacking, but we get very little backstory beyond that. He’s a dark and interesting character, literally and figuratively scarred, but by the end of the last book he was still an enigma. I was willing to accept two-dimensional secondary characters, but I like my heroes fully formed please.
My other issue was how they met. I had a hard enough time believing Anna could just climb the fence to a technology billionaire’s property without setting off an alarm, alerting a guard, unleashing the hounds—whatever. The idea that his entire security consisted of a gate that could be accessed from the adjacent property and unlocked with an old fashion key—the kind I can copy at Wal-Mart—made me do squinty eyes. I think the symbolism of Anna wearing Blaine’s key on a ribbon around her neck makes sense, and the idea of entering the garden gate to a secret world works thematically, but it the improbability of it pulled me out of the story a little bit. I mean, you’d think he’d at least have ADT or something.
Also, pussy juices. Anna refers to them a lot. I know it’s an erotic romance but I cringed every time. I kept picturing some wacked out Trop 50 commercial—“Anna, you look great! What’s your secret?” “Oh, my pussy juices have 50 fewer calories!”
Pussy juices aside, I did like this trilogy. I enjoyed the fact that Blaine’s voyeurism empowered Anna as much as it aroused her. I would have enjoyed finding out more about Blaine—more about his scars, how he realized he was a voyeur, etc. It seems most erotic romance is centered solely around the female voice. Had I been given more of Blaine’s POV, this could have been a B+.