Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Siren by Tiffany Reisz

The Siren (2012)
Tiffany Reisz
Grade: A-/B+
Genre: erotica
Sex scenes: S&M, graphically hot and not for the faint-of-heart, but a lot less detailed and fewer and further between than I had been expecting
Source: NetGalley
The Original Sinners (The Red Years): (prequel) Seven Day Loan (1) The Siren, (2) The Angel, (3) The Prince, (4) The Mistress

Tiffany Reisz is not your average erotica author, the corollary being that The Siren is not your average erotica novel. It's been a long time (if there has indeed ever been such an occasion) that a book has simultaneously made me want to cry while thumping it repeatedly against the wall in anger - the latter I might have actually done if I hadn't been reading on my laptop and thus another reason why print reigns supreme. Not that I'm complaining about free galleys.

By day, thirty-three year old Nora Sutherlin is a popular erotica writer; by night she's the most sought-after Dominatrix in New York. She sees clients at her leisure and commands astronomical figures for an hour usually spent beating the shit out of whichever masochist will pay the most - male or female. But Nora hadn't always been this popular; she's a Switch. Until five years ago when she left him, she had belonged to Søren since she was fifteen years old. Nora might currently be New York's number two Dominant, but Søren has always been number one and there's no one that Nora is more afraid of - or more in love with. He's a complete sadist and revered in the Underground for the pain and torture he can inflict on submissives. Griffin (Nora's friend and number seven Dominant) sums it up nicely:

"You gotta know, Zach - Nora's not just some smut writer with a wild sex life. She's the motherfucking queen of the Underground. And Kingsley Edge is, obviously, our king."

"And him? What is he?" Zach didn't even want to say Søren's name

"He's whatever's higher than a king and queen."

"An emperor?" Zach guessed.

Griffin smirked. "A god." 
There are only two things that Nora says she takes seriously: her writing and the Catholic Church. With five books under her belt, Nora knows that writing is what she was born to do and is determined to make herself a respected author. The Consolation Prize is deeply personal and needs to be treated right. To achieve her goal, she's turned to Royal House Publishing, an established publishing house and demanded their best.

Zachary Easton isn't interested. He left London - and his wife - eight months ago under painful circumstances and only planned on staying in New York temporarily while waiting for a more senior post to open up in LA. He has what I consider to be a typical view of erotica and an even lower regard for Nora herself. His reaction when he learns that his boss J.P. wants him to edit Nora is so cliched it's hilarious:
"She's a guttersnipe writer at best," Zach said. "Her mind's in the gutter, her books are in the gutter. I wouldn't be surprised if her last publishing house kept its offices in the gutter."
Needless to say, Zach is surprisingly surprised at Nora's work. The Consolation Prize needs a lot of work, but it holds promise for success. Zach is adamant that he will only take this project will be on his terms: Nora needs to rewrite her four-hundred-page novel to his standards within six weeks, and her contract won't be signed until he's read the last page and is happy with it. Nora needs this chance to prove herself and agrees to his terms.

Nora decides against telling Zach about her other job - she doesn't want to prove him right about what he originally thought of her. She'll reveal all when he's signed her contract, but not a moment before.
Nora's not the only one who wants her to abandon her lifestyle. Wesley is a nineteen-year-old pre-med diabetic virgin and also Nora's lodger - or 'intern' as she likes to call him for the street-cred. Their living arrangements are downright peculiar considering Nora's reputation and career, but Wes is strict about waiting until he's in love before giving up his virginity. Wes hates Søren and what Nora does for a living and can't wait for her to be able to give up the latter - they've already compromised on the former, with Wes promising that he'll leave if she ever allows Søren to hurt her again.

Zach is still married but after living with his wife like a stranger for the past few years, it doesn't feel that way. He's completely charmed by the outspoken Nora and is uncomfortable with the attraction he feels for her. Flirting and innuendo is as natural to Nora as breathing and Zach often finds himself uncomfortably turned on in her presence. His boss would replace him with another editor if he found out that he and Nora had slept together while working on her novel, so the pair come up with a compromise: no sex until the book is done. Will they last that long? Will Zach find out Nora's secret? Will Nora find out Zach's? But more importantly, how will Nora and Zach's relationship affect Wesley and Søren?

Ms Reisz completely turns the genre on its head. I've said several times that I haven't really read much erotica and while this position has broadened somewhat of late, the books I have read contain little more than continuous orgies with little-to-no plots. The Siren is a breath of fresh air: at four-hundred pages long it's a substantial piece of work but more importantly, it has substance.

Tiffany Reisz was recommended on Heroes and Heartbreakers and I was intrigued enough by that post to google Ms. Reisz's works to see if I could find any excerpts. Boy, did I ever. There aren't any excerpts from The Siren or it's upcoming sequels The Angel and The Prince, but the plethora of freebies completely makes up for it. I started out with Little Red Riding Crop and Daniel Part Two before making my way through all the other Siren prequels. All of this combined gives me a pretty good idea of what takes place in Seven Day Loan, but I really want to read that as well to get all the context. It isn't necessary to read the prequels before you read The Siren - depends if you want to know the spoiler about the Nora-Søren relationship before you read it - but definitely do take the time to read them when you have the time.

The Eleanor of Seven Day Loan and Nora of The Siren are the same person - for some reason, despite reading this here, it took me a while for the information to actually sink through. I'll be calling her Nora from now on; let me just explain her history. Nora was collared to Søren for ten years from when she was fifteen years old. When I say 'collared', I mean this literally - he made her wear a white collar (you'll get the irony when you actually read The Siren or any of the excerpts but I'm not going to state it here because it's something you have to discover for yourself). He waited until she was twenty before devirginizing her, spending the years in the meantime training her mentally for what was to come. He might have beat her so bad she could barely walk and shown her no mercy when she disobeyed him, but yet she stayed because she loved him. This changed five years ago when she decided that she wouldn't allow him to give up his life for her, and after a year wondering whether she would ever be able to set foot out of the house again, Nora pulled herself together, approached her friend Kingsley (also Søren's best friend) for a job and the rest is history.

Nora's book is semi-autobiographical. William is a sadist and Caroline is purely vanilla, but she submits to him because of her love for him and wants to please him. Despite their love, they can't be together, and the book ends with them breaking up despite the fact that this is the last thing they want to do. I thought it was about Nora and Søren - I could not have been more wrong.

The sex is tamer than I had been expecting. A lot of the sex scenes (a) are in Nora's book so don't really count and (b) are very very hot but stop just that breath away from actual sexual intercourse. The S&M scenes can get very intense and are possibly more than what a normal contemporary romance reader may be comfortable with, so be warned.

Zach's advice to Nora is somewhat confusing considering the maxim goes "write what you know, draw what you see." Instead, Zach orders Nora to "Stop writing what you know and start writing what you want to know." Thoughout the book we get occasional glimpses of Nora's writing and she takes Zach's advice very literally. When we read excerpts through Zach's editorial perspective, these will usually be dialogue scenes; when Nora's typing, we'll usually be reading sex scenes. With regard to the latter, you think that you're reading just a really hot S&M scene between William and Caroline, but when it jumps back to the present and we see Nora deleting everything she's just written, you realise that it actually happened to her. When you factor in how brutal a sadist Søren is, you might begin to understand why I say I wanted to cry whenever this happened, but it's really something you need to read for yourself.

However much I love Nora, I have a whole lot of trouble relating to her. We're complete opposites and I'm not just talking about her sex life. I'd love to be as carefree and outspoken as Nora and able to live life without a care in the world about what people think of her. She's smart, confident and funny - everything that you want in a romance novel heroine with the dominatrix as an added bonus. My problem with connecting with Nora doesn't just lie in what she does, but also why she does it. I'll try and explain this as best I can below.

I guess I can understand why a person may get sexual gratification from dominating/submitting to another, but I know that this isn't something for me (hey, I happen to like vanilla!) I'm fine with reading it and since Tiffany Reisz does it awesomely I do enjoy reading her S&M scenes, but what takes place between Nora and Søren goes much further than what happens in her short stories that I first read and much further than I'm comfortable with accepting. I get that it's supposed to hurt and be painful etc because that's what the whole sadism/S&M thing is all about, but Søren is just ups the violence level ten times than what I had read in Daniel Part Two. It offends the feminist in me to simply accept that the hurt (you'll get why I use this word if you read the book) Søren inflicts on Nora is alright just because they love each other. The essay I wrote for my Justice, Equality and Society class argued inter alia that traditional gender roles and Christianity amongst other factors had condoned violence against women in the home and this in turn contributed to the establishment of patriarchy. Nora obviously demonstrates that gender roles aren't always absolute in terms of violence and this is a reason that I love her for it. I can't condone any type of domestic violence against women and while my lenient views on S&M may seem inconsistent with my position as a feminist, the reason that I accept it is because of the existence of consent. However, my violence-o-meter has a limit and what Søren does beyond surpasses it. The law does not condone the defence of consent in criminal proceedings when the defendant has inflicted actual bodily harm against another (R. v. Brown (1), a case involving naked sadomasochist men, a basement, planks of wood and sharp implements ... I'll leave your imagination to run its course ...) and although the law has been inconsistent (R. v. Wilson (2)) it's necessary. In my opinion, Søren's actions fall into the category of unlawful, however much Nora might like it, enjoy it or even beg for it.

Another thing that I hate is how she can submit completely to him. The feminist in me loves that Nora is a Domme because of the whole reversal of the genders thing and so the fact that she can then drop to her knees and switch straight into submissive mode at the snap of his fingers just because it's him really grates on my nerves. My essay addressed the dominance of men in all aspects of life and the ingrained acceptance in society that this is 'natural' and 'right' just because it has always been this way. Nora's complete and unquestioning submission to Søren demonstrates exactly what I hate about society: the idea that because men have a penis and have been traditionally been perceived as the breadwinner, they should continued to be treated with greater respect and their opinions given more merit. I even get that they love each other (which, you know, is a pretty generous concession on my part considering how much I dislike Søren) and that Nora's submission and Søren's beating the crap out of her are their respective ways of showing their love, but this doesn't mean that I have to like it. In my opinion, it's detrimental to women and society for women to be treated as inferior.

There are some interesting views on religion and Christianity. Nora's the last person you would expect to be a devout Catholic, but although she no longer goes to Church or confession regularly, her faith hasn't waned. I know I'm quoting a lot of passages, but Ms Reisz explains it all so beautifully that I can't help but do it. In this scene, Nora is explaining the significance of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene in Antonio Ciseri's Ecce Homo which depicts Jesus being presented to the angry mob.
"They know what He's feeling. The women always know. They know it isn't just a beating or a murder they're being forced to witness. It wasn't even just a crucifixion. It was a sexual assault, Zach. It was a rape. ... That's why I believe, Zach. Because of all gods, Jesus alone understands. He understands the purpose of pain and shame and humiliation."

"What is the purpose?"

"For salvation, of course. For love."
So Nora allowed Søren to beat her because she loved him, but was his treatment of her not rape, too? Did he not violate her? To me, rape means an action carried out without consent and can be applied to a variety of contexts beyond sexual ones. Besides the lack of consent, I think there also needs to be a deliberate intention to harm and cause pain; Søren might have Nora's consent, but this doesn't obliterate the fact that he sets out to deliberately mark her for his own enjoyment. Unlike Jesus, Nora might want Søren to treat her how he does and enjoys it, but in my mind, that still doesn't make it not rape.

On a lighter note, Tiffany Reisz's writing is FUCKING FANTASTIC. It's been a long time since I've read such haunting prose one moment and then brilliantly witty dialogue the next. The excerpts we see from The Consolation Prize are equally amazing. It's ironic that the book is about Nora getting help and advice for her own novel, when the story of her life as we're reading it is already so beautifully written. I went through a phase from when I was about fourteen when I wanted to be an author, but it wasn't until I did NaNo that I realised that it wasn't for me. I always found it difficult to get words on the page in a way that sounded good and natural; Ms Reisz manages what I wish I could do seemingly effortlessly. Perhaps one of my favourite lines in terms of its beautiful simplicity is "She pressed into him, the dawn of her body meeting the horizon of his" - I'll leave you to ponder who Nora's with ...

The humour is great. Nora's nature is to treat everything like a joke and nothing more so than her job - both of them. She teases Zach by saying things that conform to his original thoughts and expectations of her, for example picking up the phone with "Sophocle's House of Patricide and Incest. How may I blind you?" just killed me. There are times when The Siren can get very very dark and Ms Reisz provides desperately needed light relief. Had it not been for this, The Siren would have been a depressing read and I think I would have given it a much lower grade, despite how well-written it is. I'm going to put in another quote just because I love this bit: Nora is reading Zach's feedback on the latest pages she's sent him
""Nora - forgive me for copyediting, but it must be said - you have raped the semicolon yet again. Stop it. It wasn't asking for it no matter how it was dressed. If you don't know how to use punctuation then do away with it altogether, write like Faulkner and we'll pretend it's on purpose.""
Nora then goes to address her "sexually compromised semicolon." Ms Reisz's way with words is truly inspiring.

Zach calls Nora's book an "antiromance." In my opinion, it's an apt way to describe Nora's entire life: Søren deliberately hurts her to demonstrate his love; Nora and Søren love each other yet she leaves him; and her relationship with Wesley ... I really can't spoil this. As an avid romance reader, I equate the genre with happy-ever-afters and consider it practically an absolute requirement. If a romance novel is thus defined, then The Siren is quite possibly the most failed attempt at a romance novel ever.

I loved this book and I loved reading it, but I've had a very hard time getting this review out. The Siren was a real joy to read, but I'm just so dissatisfied with the ending that it's difficult to pin down everything that I'm feeling while still doing the book justice. The feminist in me has very strong views about the subordination of women (my essay as mentioned above was three-thousand words on the subjection of women in contract law) and this completely dominates my thinking, whether I like it or not. I haven't mentioned huge parts of the plot involving Wesley and Zach because it's too heart-wrenching for me to put into words and you need to experience the heart-wrenching for yourself. Nora describes William and Caroline's forced separation as "beautiful and brutal and how it had to end." The Siren is so beautiful and brutal that it makes my heart ache for the paths that Ms Reisz has taken the characters down. As for how it had to end - grudgingly I can understand why the book ended the way it did and I respect Ms Reisz for giving her characters anything but the conventional happy-ever-after, but that doesn't mean that I like it at all. The Siren is the most well-written book I've read in a long time, but it has the most dissatisfying ending of quite possibly everything that I've ever read. Like I said at the beginning of this review, The Siren isn't anything like you would expect. Perhaps I'm subconsciously a sadist myself, but I can't wait to see where Ms Reisz will take Nora next.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to have to go and read some Nora Roberts or something that I know is guaranteed a happy ending to cheer myself up.

(1) [1994] 1 AC 212
(2) [1997] QB 47

Image courtesy of Fantastic Fiction

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