By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
I read a Dear Author review of this book a few months ago and thought, meh, that's not for me. Rationally, intellectually, this book has nothing that interests me at all. A story about a violent, liquor-distilling gang where the men unwind from work (protecting the gang's territory like a pack of violent alpha dogs) by cage fighting of all things? Not my cuppa. And while the men are doing that, the scantily clad women are working in the gang's nightclub, either serving men as cocktail waitresses or debasing themselves for men's entertainment as strippers? No, thanks, really not interested. -And some of those women wear tattooed collars as a symbol of their belonging to a man? Ugh, I'm feeling a little sick. -And the protagonist is a submissive pain-slut? Gross: I'm down with bondage, but sadomasochism is not my bag. -And all of this happens in a dystopian future? Hell to the No! I hate, hate, hate dystopias. This world is fucked up and scary enough that I really don't enjoy 'escaping' into an even more dark and twisted alternate reality.
OMG: I could not put this sh*t down. I should not have liked anything about this story, and yet it was utterly transporting and so, so readable. I'm a terrible, unapologetic skimmer, especially with erotica where plot continuity isn't really the point--<*waggles eyebrows lasciviously*>--but I happily read, no, savored Every.Single.Word.
There are a lot of things about this book that get my feminist hackles up. At first glance, the gender roles in this dystopian society appear extremely rigid and patriarchal: the men are leaders, fighters, enforcers, protectors, dominants, while the women serve, soothe, and submit. When Noelle is brought to the O'Kane gang's compound for the first time, the leader, Dallas, says she can stay but "if she's not willing to tend bar, clean house, or suck dick by the end of the week, she's gone." (p.13) I might have thrown the book at the wall right then, if Dallas's girlfriend, Lex, hadn't responded with an eloquent "Fuck you."
Another thing that annoyed me: the women aren't in charge of their own orgasms. They spend a lot of time begging to get off, while the men come when and how they please, which seems fundamentally unfair. That said, in real life, too many men aren't especially concerned with satisfying their partners at all, while the men of Sector Four give their women multiple orgasms, even though they (the ladies) have to beg a little. Since this is all in fantasy anyway, maybe that's not such a bad deal.
Even against this patriarchal, women-as-the-weaker-sex backdrop, Beyond Shame has a strong and overt -- though somewhat contradictory -- theme of feminine empowerment. As Lex goes on to explain to Noelle after the "tend bar, clean house, suck dick" thing: "You don't have to lay a finger on anyone, not if you don't want to. Get a job, work at the club, whatever. The sex is a bonus, not an obligation." (p.14) Nothing happens in this story that isn't consensual, and totally, clear-mindedly so, where consent can't be tinged by alcohol or drug impairment or even emotional upheaval. Not all of the women are sexually submissive (though most seem to be, and Noelle definitely is), and even where they are, they choose their partners and ask for what they want (though sometimes in the context of begging for orgasm).
Though sex is a huge part of what gives women value in Sector Four, intelligence is more important. As Lex puts it (in her typically profane way): "Everyone has a couple of holes a guy can stick his dick in. The important stuff is all above the neck... [Use] your brain, baby girl." (p. 20). A closer reading of the story provides ample examples of women's value above and apart from sex: one of the other women is a mechanical genius, better at fixing the gang's cars, motorcycles, and electrical equipment than any man in the compound, and Noelle turns out to be a skilled computer hacker, though she considers her expertise paltry compared to that of others she knew in the more technologically advanced city of Eden (from whence she comes). Indeed, her biggest asset to Dallas and the gang turns out not to be her ability to tend bar, clean house, or suck dick, but the wealth of information she knows about the powerful men who control Eden.
Even so, there's no easy resolution of the tension between the patriarchal world of Sector Four and the relative freedom women have within it. Lex says:
You can't buy people here with money, especially women. You buy them with security, safety, all the things that have always been true in societies where men hold the power. But we hold power, too. Remember that--there are things we have, things we can offer. Things they need.
(p.19) In the end,while this is a world where women hold unprecedented sexual freedom, it is also a world where men hold the power, and women can be bought. That's not a comfortable notion for a feminist like me.
One of the themes I found most fascinating was Noelle's discovery that--though it is her instinct to submit, "to give control and authority of herself to another" (p. 51)--that she has "to get better at saying no before yes means anything" (p. 294). From the beginning of their relationship, Jasper urges her to explore her options before committing to him: "I want you to have other people, find out what you like. Get and give pleasure before you settle on me." (p. 98) It reminded me of a late night, probably drunken conversation I had with my college roommate's girlfriend many years ago, where she insisted that in true dominant/submissive relationships, the submissive holds all the real power. I always understood that to come from the ultimate power to safeword out and call halt to the proceedings, but this book is the first BDSM-themed story I've ever read that really shows how much deeper a submissive's power runs. Noelle holds absolute power of choice over her own sexuality (though not necessarily the timing of her orgasms), and in order for that choice to be fully realized, it must be an informed choice. Jasper demands Noelle take time and space to learn what she wants before he accepts her verdict that he is the one who can give her what she needs.
My biggest disappointment with the book is that, about three-quarters of the way in, a stark conflict arises that stands between Noelle and Jasper's HAE. This conflict appears insurmountable and sets the story up for lots of angst and drama... but then the story ends without any satisfactory resolution to that problem. It's not even a cliffhanger: more like the narrative propels you, the reader, toward the edge of a cliff and you see it coming and you're terrified and sick and worried... and then at the last possible moment, the story changes direction and the cliff is still there, but suddenly doesn't matter. It felt emotionally manipulative and far, far less satisfying than if the problem had actually been solved.
All in all, I really enjoyed this when I didn't think I would, and I can't wait to read the rest of the series.