Book Review: Charlotte Stein, Deep Desires

The Further She Goes, the More She Needs

Abbie Gough has done her best to escape a violent past. But in the process, she’s avoided life, desire and love. So when she sees her equally closed off neighbour, Ivan, performing for her one night through his window, she can’t stop looking. 

Voyeuristic pleasures become Abbie’s lifeline. But as she comes alive and craves more, Ivan backs away. He has his own secrets , the kind that draw her into kinky games and her own shameful desires, while also preventing real intimacy between them. But now she’s found someone so special, she’s not about to give up easily. And she’s willing to do whatever it takes to melt Ivan’s cool exterior. Even if captivating him means pushing through her limits to whatever lies beyond.

You know how sometimes when you’ve known a friend for a long time and then they say or do something that makes you look at them and realise they’ve just evolved to a whole new level of self-actualisation?

I just experienced this in a totally different context.

Review below the cut.

I realised very early in this novella with a few words that lanced out of nowhere and made my body jolt that with this story, Charlotte Stein’s evolved to a whole new level as a writer. And my god, that is such a privilege to witness for me both as a reader and a writer, to follow an admired writer through her novels and see her reach for a deeper more dangerous authenticity and get there, do it bravely and do it well.

There was the barest hint of darkness in Power Play which I picked up on enough to be slightly frustrated it didn’t get unpacked. Here in Deep Desires, that darkness is laid right out on the page and explored with a clarity and a ruthlessness and a poignancy that is at times fair breathtaking. And skill too because Abbie’s traumatic history isn’t tediously forced out in info dumps … it’s revealed to us in brief painfully vivid phrases, exactly like an averted memory that spears you with unexpected pain. I’ve always loved the effortless intimacy of Stein’s writing style, the stream of consciousness that some readers seem to struggle with but which instantly hooks me in and makes me very very comfortable and secure in her writing hands. And that effortlessness is exactly why those moments of reveal are so perfectly effective, especially to a reader like me who prefers to piece things together instead of being treated like I’m two years old. It’s elegant.

There’s a powerful use of metaphor in this, a puzzle box and a labyrinth, the latter of which I just remembered was a symbol in the very first Charlotte Stein story I ever read, Waiting In Vain. Only here it’s infused with such weight I had a slight smile of deep approval as I read those paragraphs. The development of that and the puzzle box as metaphors for the emotional mazes both Abbie and Ivan have to negotiate in themselves and each other was something so rewarding and wonderful to see, added to the gravitas and worth of this story as more than a bit of escapist fun.

This story is a journey and it’s a hard one but valuable. Whereas the transformation arcs and empowerment in other Stein stories have been varying shades of subtle and always couched in fun — never a quality to be undervalued — here the angst is inescapably real and makes the sexual heat and emotion so much richer. I got quite emotional actually reading this which is a personal first for what’s marketed as erotica.

Abbie endeared herself to me quite unconsciously with her intense but artless vulnerability mixed in with enough intelligence and self-awareness and wit like all Charlotte Stein heroines. I don’t want to sound dismissive of that or triviliasing it but the fact is I’ve come to expect that from a Stein story, it’s perfectly natural and obvious now that her women would be like that. But there was a moment in this novella where my heart clenched around Abbie, where suddenly it was sealed fact that I adored her. No moment of great profound insight or vulnerability or heroism (though that does come later and I pretty much roared in my head for her) … no, it was a moment when she said utterly the wrong thing and I loved her for it. “Did you really just say that?”

Ivan was a far more complex character and for a good long time, there was an unease in the pit of my stomach, so afraid for Abbie because it seemed like she could go from one hideously controlling man to a man equally controlling in a much more insidious way. As hot as the escalation was and as much as it made for a certain deliciously fucked up edge to the danger, that unease roiled for much longer than I expected, really not helped by the Serial Killer tag. And then my god, the sweetness of the reveal, the great shuddering sigh of relief when we’re shown in incontrovertible proof (and no heroics) that Ivan cares about her in a way she deserves, in a way that elevates not degrades her. There’s a wonderful moment early in the relationship that telegraphs it but played with enough ambiguity that I quailed at the use of the word ‘triumph’ and then melted a little at Abbie’s realisation in the next line. But the conversation in the middle of the book was really the clincher for me, erased all my doubt and fear for her.

What I really loved about their relationship is for a while there, it seems like Abbie really does fuck up. As much as I totally felt her pounding curiosity, I was equally dreading the repercussions and it didn’t surprise me when she got it. Made her human and so real to me. In a way, I almost didn’t need the out she was given but that made such lovely sense in terms of Ivan’s own emotional evolution that it worked for me more on his level than hers.

I was also slightly nervous that Ivan’s big reveal would leave me unmoved. Like the big reveals in Jane Lovering’s Slightly Foxed and Please Don’t Stop The Music. I can’t help that sometimes what I can imagine is much worse than what a novelist puts on the page. Too much reading of actual serial killer true crime. So yes, I was a bit nervous that I would have the same underwhelmed reaction here.

Jesus fucking christ, no.  Yet again, it grounded this novel with a weight that shocked me into immobility and honestly into wondering if other erotica readers would hate this. Me, I loved it and applauded the choice Stein made, the road she took to explore. Darkness and horror when done right makes sweetness and light unutterably beautiful and precious. And that is exactly what happens here, the fact that there are still moments of Stein humour in the narrative, and that both Abbie and Ivan can appreciate the ability to laugh and have fun in bed, that the sex can move from fueled by darkness to sex for the pure fun of it. Sometimes I think it’s really only people who have been through horrific stuff who understand the quality of laughter and buoyancy. Dionysus and Apollo. Hades and Hermes.

The sexual escalation was a truly wonderful thing to see and feel, the fact that Abbie and Ivan go from almost strangers through a series of precise fantastic increasingly hot encounters to a delayed consummation that damned near made my fingers clench with frustration. Marvellous stuff, that steady pacing out. Abbie’s sexual hangups were all things I could achingly relate to, a quality of pathetic realism that’s always such vindication and sweet relief to see on the page. And I particularly loved how Ivan responded to that, such a great development and insight into both their characters.

Actually, that was another aspect I noticed and really loved about this story, that Stein would more than once put a moment of blistering sexual heat and emotional turning point in a situation of almost appalling mundaneness. Looking up from the puzzle box to Wheel Of Fortune. Wearing the little sexual device at Abbie’s job as checkout chick at the supermarket. Usually erotica seems to take place in this other world of heightened colour and emotion, a realm of fantasy, yes. This placed it back into the real world I know and that was such a small and so valuable thing.

Having said that, I’m pretty sure I’m not wrong in imagining Michael Fassbender all the way through this. Hee hee.

And the lit!porn. God, how I adored that, the inclusion of literary intellect into sexual play. Made me grin and love the story just that little bit more. Not to mention the Patrick Bateman reference that made me laugh out loud.

The ending device was more fairytale than I would have wanted — I really didn’t want heroics — but that didn’t stop me being utterly swamped with relief, and then viciously joyful at the last paragraph, at the unabashed ferocity of their bond and loyalty to each other. A ferocity that’s totally justified to me. I couldn’t help but be so glad they had found each other, that they had each other.

Certainly, Deep Desires has displaced Power Play as my most favourite Charlotte Stein story. To me, it’s much more complex novel than Sheltered in that Ivan has a journey right along with Abbie and very much doesn’t have all the answers like Van did. This is a significantly braver and wider leap from Power Play, so much more precious to me for the authenticity and exploration of the emotional darkness hinted at there.

One of those stories I’m so glad to have experienced, to have lived through with the characters. How many times can you say that about erotica?

Full disclosure: Charlotte was lovely enough to offer me a review copy. Which naturally I fell on like a ravening chicken. And made me all the more determined to be scrupulously honest.

Out 27 September through Mischief, Amazon and beyond.

I’ll update with more details when available. Out now!

And ha, yes, I had vaguely thought the first post in this here blog would be something staid and dull and utilitarian. But needs must! Book flailing always comes first.


One thought on “Book Review: Charlotte Stein, Deep Desires

  1. […] Reviews Breaking the Bookshelf Dream in Dizzy Sunlight […]

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