A note before we get started: I am reviewing both parts of Emily Foster’s duology The Belhaven Series. I will likely get a bit spoilery about these two books, as their author set out to do an interesting thing, and did it.
These books were on my radar because of Malin’s reviews from last year (#BlameMalin). Well, specifically her review of the first book, How Not to Fall. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that the book ends both on a cliffhanger, and that it is not a HEA. This is rather rare in Romancelandia, really. I knew from Malin that the story would continue in the second book, so I decided to wait a bit and read them close together, even though I had not read her review of the second book, other than noting that she rated the book highly. Once I finished How Not to Fall in less than 48 hours, I immediately bought the second book How Not to Let Go and started it, needing to see how these characters continued to develop and where the story would go. That book however, took much longer to read.
The two books are quite dissimilar, while managing to tell one story. The first book is in many ways a quick, sexy, erotica leaning romp with bright scientists dealing with a power and age dynamic. Sexily. At about the two-thirds mark though, the emotional undertone of the story breaks wide open and our main characters, Annie and Charles, are forced to reckon with his demons and her naiveté. They also have to deal with love, and what happens when it cannot be returned even where it exists.
The second book, How Not to Let Go, is structured completely differently from its predecessor. The narration moves between the two characters, where previously we had only gotten the story from Annie’s perspective. It is also a reckoning with trauma, and rebuilding a relationship that nearly destroyed both of its participants based on its depth. It also takes place over the course of two years, while the first covers approximately two months. As I said, very different books. But, somehow it all comes together in a believable manner, even though we’re dealing with extreme wealth and once in a lifetime intellects.
What really got me though, was what I learned after I was done reading these books. You see, all that Emily Foster accomplishes, and it is quite a lot, was done with purpose and precision as an author. She writes on her blog that this entire enterprise was in response to the trash that was 50 Shades of Grey. I have never read those books, I don’t have a desire to. My mother and sister have, and when I asked my mother about it at the time she turned to me and said “eh, it’s not good smut, it’s just there.” I think beyond “just being there” it is also damaging to women and Ms. Foster (really Emily Nagoski writing under a pen name) lays it out beautifully.
“It delivers the story – even if the story is awful. And that is not nothing. But the plot fucks up because in the end Ana defies the biology of attachment in order to do what the plot demands she does: a woman who has spent 450 pages worried that she made a guy mad is not going to FIGHT after being spanked with her consent. When she’s in pain, she’ll turn TOWARD her attachment object, not away. That’s what mammals – especially insecurely attached mammals – do. But the plot structure required that she turn away, and so that’s what she does, despite its biological implausibility. And THAT’s why this book is bullshit. Or rather, it’s the final piece of bullshit in The Worst Book I Have Ever Finished. Grey is Ragey McRagington, Ana is the most dishwater heroine I’ve ever read (which is, I suppose, a kind of distinction), and their relationship is abusive, which makes all the sex gross.” Foster goes on to explain the biology of her argument on her blog.
So, feeling so enraged by that book, Foster set out to prove that the basic structure James’ utilized could be done successfully, without devolving into an abusive mess. She set out to write a novel that featured a virgin college senior experiencing her sexual awakening with an older, more experienced, powerful man who treated her with dignity and respect and affection. What we all got out of the equation is a hopeful story that is pro-woman, pro-sex, and pro-pleasure. Not only did she do that, but she took her work in her “real life” and grew the story out, while sticking to the structural limitations she gave herself by mimicking the structure of 50 Shades (having to end on a cliffhanger, for example).
The last bit I’ll mention is that this author was already on my radar for her non-fiction work. Under her real name, Emily Nagoski she is the author of Come As You Are a book about the science of female pleasure. That has moved up the list as well.
I realize that I’ve been pretty vague on details after all, and I’ve decided that’s okay.