21 Sep

The Billionaire Beast by Jackie Ashenden, and Other Thoughts

This week, I read The Billionaire Beast by Jackie Ashenden, which is a Beauty and the Beast-inspired romance in which “beast” means “going through some shit” rather than merely “is an asshat for no reason.”

I have Thoughts and Feelings that extend far beyond this individual book, so this will be part book review and part a long, rambling post about romance in general and writing and humanity and myself and maybe some other stuff. Because the spiel as a whole takes some negative turns, I want to make it clear up front that my feelings toward the book itself are overall positive. When I finished reading it, I immediately went and bought two other books in the series, which I don’t do if I’m even slightly meh about a book. I’m going to talk about some things that might make it a no for some people. It wasn’t a magically perfect book for me, either, so this isn’t a Unicorn Review, and I’m aware some of my positive bent is because it was a thought-provoking read and my head is full of stuff to chew on, and I like that more than I didn’t like the things I didn’t like. But if you were exactly like me, I would recommend this book to you without reservation.

Before we get to the guts of it, the story deserved better proofreading. There are some missing periods, a fair amount of comma abuse, and some jumbled words (i.e., him pushing right her back). Some of the first-person thoughts were in italics, but a lot of them weren’t, especially in the beginning, so there was some mental juggling to put those in the proper context. But again, my pedantic ass kept reading because the story was more compelling than my persnicketiness for a change.

I was 99.7% sure while reading the sample that I’d looked at this book before and said, “Aw HELL no.” Since then, the world has changed and dragged me along for the ride. I am low-key pissed off at baseline now and more prone to, as the cool kids say, “clap back” when someone transgresses against me. In a way, I approve because I feel strong and empowered, but I don’t enjoy 43 years of conditioning to be “nice” having a fit of the vapors every time I respond to life in a less-than-obsequious fashion. The reappearance of this book coincided with my yearning for a role model of unapologetic dickishness and transformed “Aw HELL no” into “TEACH ME YOUR WAYS.”

As the story opens, there can be no doubt that Nero de Santis is an unapologetic dick. He’s also a billionaire recluse with daddy and mommy issues, but that’s all tertiary to his primary and secondary characteristics of being a dick and being a dick. His first on-page act is to debate whether to allow an applicant for a job as his assistant into his house because she’s not hot. Although he’s stopped sexing his assistants because they get lazy after they start banging the boss, he still wants somebody nice to look at, and she’s not up to his standards. He ultimately deigns to suffer her not-hot presence for the duration of an interview because no one else on the planet wants to work for him because his dickishness is legendary. He fired the last competent assistant he had when she declined to line up hookers for him, and he regrets nothing because when it’s someone’s job to get him what he wants when he wants it, it’s obvious dereliction of duty for that person to say, “Nah, I’ll pass.” He doesn’t want to waste his precious time on this not-hot applicant if she shows any hint of reluctance to do his most outrageous bidding (bearing in mind he thinks asking his assistant to arrange sex for him is a reasonable request), so he decides to test her by dialing obnoxious and offensive up to 11.

Phoebe Taylor, the aforementioned not-hot job applicant, needs a shitload of money to pay for her comatose fiancé’s continued medical care. (He’s already been hospitalized for two years. I’ve worked for hospitals and insurance companies, and I’ve seen many people bankrupted by a two-week hospital stay. The most implausible part of the story was that she was able to cover his care that long in the absence of a trust fund or a winning Powerball ticket.) She will put up with whatever shit she has to in order to get and keep this job that pays an unspecified six figures every three months. Yes, the man is rude and likes to play intimidation games, but he’s not the first rich asshole she’s worked for and her parents are kind of yikes, too, so she knows how to handle assholes, starting with never letting them see you flinch. She passes his test and accepts the job, which comes with a warning that she’ll be fired at the first sign of disobedience.

I didn’t even tell you details of their discussion and it sounds like there’s going to be some James Spader/Maggie Gyllenhaal shenanigans, right? Yeah, not really. This book is not what I thought it was going to be. You see, shortly after Nero’s disreputable debut, there’s a sprinkling of hints that there’s more to him than simple assholery. He’s not good with other people’s humor or sarcasm. He can’t read complicated or subtle emotions. He’s rigid in his routines and preferences. These are traits that have gained mainstream association with Asperger’s, but they can also stem from environmental conditioning, such as spending 10 years of your childhood locked in a small room with no human contact other than whispers through the door.

Abruptly, the stock billionaire asshole from central casting becomes a profoundly damaged human being. Even though Nero seems to be making conscious decisions to be an asshole, he really doesn’t grasp the concept of an alternative, so it’s more an instinct than a choice. His selfishness (wanting what he wants when he wants it without any resistance) is the closest approximation of self-care he can manage. He thinks he’s totally ascended from his traumatic origins because he’s rich and powerful and nobody can touch him, but it’s painfully obvious he’s only recreated a more luxurious iteration of the horrific isolation of his childhood. It’s actually worse because there’s no jailer other than himself this time. The door is open, but he still can’t escape. He has a hard time going to places in his own house that are too far flung from his little nest, and he’s totally dependent on others for everything that needs to be done in the outside world. For all his intimidating size and beastly roaring, he’s incredibly vulnerable and at the mercy of others.

I wanted him to be an unrepentant asshole, and a couple of chapters later, I just wanted someone to save the beast because I felt so bad for him.

Yes, he does creepy, inappropriate shit. He has security cameras all over the house and spies on Phoebe, which is gross and she busts him for it, but up until that point, he’s been validated because employees aren’t always trustworthy and his butler would have died of a heart attack if he hadn’t seen him collapse on camera, so he doesn’t understand that it’s creepy and inappropriate. He knows not to be a rapist, but he thinks a woman enjoying a kiss is a consent blank check and has to be set straight more than once by Phoebe—but considering the very real possibility he’s never had sex he didn’t pay for (either via prostitutes or former assistants), it’s not surprising he has some weird ideas about what constitutes “yes,” and he does back off with a forceful reprimand.

After one such reprimand, he has Phoebe order him some prostitutes. (This was foreshadowed in the first chapter, remember, so it shouldn’t be shocking.) He ultimately sends the prostitutes home unsexed because he only wants Phoebe, but frankly, I wouldn’t have been bent out of shape at that point if he had sex with them. Phoebe had rejected him not once but two or three times, including a slap to the face. They’re not a couple. He has no reasonable expectation that coupledom is pending. What’s he supposed to do, be celibate for the rest of his life and pine for her, like she’s doing for her comatose fiancé? (Oho, I just saw what you did there, Ms. Ashenden.) The part of this I had a small problem with is how it jars with his reclusiveness. His house is like Willy Wonka’s factory—nobody ever goes in, nobody ever comes out. His brothers don’t visit. He doesn’t conduct in-person business. He doesn’t have friends. But prostitutes are the exception to the rule? (I will definitely remember this exception when writing my Willy Wonka romance, though…) Admittedly, I’m not a guy and my drive to get laid is way lower than the demands of my social phobia, but it still seemed a little questionable to me.

Their first sex scene did feel a bit like he just wore her down until she caved in, but again, it’s more complicated than that. Phoebe has guilt for having impure thoughts about Nero while her fiancé is in a coma, but it’s been two years and it’s not looking good, and she’s kind of looking for a nudge to derail her from the path to martyrdom. She’s also sexually insecure—not because she’s bad at it (her fiancé was happy to let her rock his world) but because she’s never had an orgasm (more thoughts on that in a minute)—and once she’s on the slippery slope to Orgasm City, then she’s guilty about having pleasure. Yes, of course, it’s ideal when someone says “no” and the other person stops even if the “no” was in jest because no always means no and communication and listening are the key to happiness and all, and if had been me, I would have stuck my thumbs in his fucking eyeballs if he didn’t get away from me when I told him to, but this was so thoroughly set up that Phoebe was getting in her own way, in this one specific case, I wasn’t outraged that he stuck around to make her come a lot. Furthermore, she’s not the least upset about it afterward. It is, in fact, the turning point where she gets so soft and lovey-dovey toward him, she becomes boring, so in this one specific case, no harm, no foul for persisting through a feeble protest. But, as always, your tolerance may vary.

I’m going to copy part of a comment I left on Smart Bitches Trashy Books because I can’t express my thoughts about Phoebe better:

My frustration with her is that in the beginning, she enjoys that her unflappable compliance befuddles the hero, so even when she’s “yes, of course, your wish is my command”ing him, there’s an element of challenge, like “What else you got? I’ll knock that down, too, sucker.” But once she catches sympathy, that subtle pushback vanishes, which may very well be consistent with her helper/healer tendencies but is also a total drag. It was one of few fun elements in what’s really a pretty dark tale, so its absence was felt.

During the job interview when he’s at peak asshole, she tells him if he wants her to strip for him, she’ll strip, but she draws the line at disposing of bodies. She’s a sport. We like her. And then she has the first orgasm of her life and stops challenging him because it’s mean to snark someone you have feelings for, I guess? I pretty much lost interest in her there until she started making more interesting decisions near the end of the story.

Now a few thoughts about the prevalence in romance of grown-ass women who have never had an orgasm. I get not having an orgasm through penetrative sex, and I get that it’s possible to have a sex partner or partners who are too selfish and/or inept to deliver more satisfying forms of stimulation. What I struggle with is reaching adulthood without figuring out masturbation unless one is asexual (in which case, I’d then struggle with twu wuv flipping the switch to constant hornypants) or a survivor of sexual trauma (in which case, I’d struggle with healthy sexuality being magically awakened by twu wuv’s first dick) or a medical condition like anorgasmia or dyspareunia (again, the peen of love =/= curative). “Doesn’t know what an orgasm is until Hero” has become cheap shorthand for “Hero is superior to all men.” If orgasms are all he’s got going for him, honey, he’s not any better than an average vibrator. If he’s wonderful in other ways, making him also the sole bearer of sexual pleasure is superfluous, not to mention cruel to the poor heroine. You know how it sucks when every woman in the story other than the heroine is a bitch? I feel the same way when no one other than the hero, including the heroine, knows what a female orgasm is and how to acquire one. It’s the ultimate in mansplaining to have a clitoris your whole life and have a dude come in and instruct you on its use.

Which leads us to a few thoughts about the comatose fiancé being perfectly happy to get his dick taken care of while Phoebe gave up on ever having an orgasm. I imagine at some point before publication, feedback was “You can’t make the comatose fiancé too sympathetic or people will be rooting for him instead, so… make him selfish in bed!” Newsflash: He could beat the shit out of the heroine only on days ending in Y and there would still be people screeching, “She made him a promise and should be faithful to him until her dying day! Shame! Shame!” It’s okay to make him a good man. It’s okay for it to be sad that he loses. It’s okay for it to be really difficult for her to choose someone else and a life that’s not on hold waiting indefinitely for him to wake up. It would be real and human, without forcing a realization that he was never that great to begin with. I wonder two things when a good ex suddenly goes bad: (1) Why were you ever with him? (2) Are you sure this conveniently timed epiphany is truthful and not just an excuse to justify bailing the first time you have another option? I’d rather see some believable pain and turmoil. If that’s too deep for some people to handle, fuck ’em. Don’t pull your punches to keep the timid in their comfort bubble. Stories in general and romance in particular are about emotion. It’s a disservice to a story that hands you a big, complex emotional conflict to tiptoe around it in hopes someone with a martyr complex won’t leave a bad review. Make the bold choice. Say the quiet part out loud. Take my breath away with brutal emotional honesty.

There’s a novella by Mary Ann Rivers, The Story Guy. (If you’re exactly like me, also recommended without reservation. Have an entire box of tissues handy.) It’s the only time I’ve seen in a romance novel an acknowledgment that being a caregiver is consuming and demoralizing and you can have all the love in the world for someone and still want better for yourself and hate yourself for having that thought. This guy sacrificed his entire existence to care for his brain-damaged sister. Every second of his life revolves around her. This is not his child. They have a mother who’s alive and well and just can’t be bothered to support either of her children. So this young man turns off his life for years to take on this responsibility. He’s trapped at a job that gives him the flexibility and benefits to take care of his sister. He doesn’t have time to date, so he can’t get married and have children. He has NOTHING he might want out of life. And there were readers calling him “selfish”—SELFISH!!!!!!!—because he made a hard decision at the end to take 3% of the pressure off himself so he could experience his own life. Some people are just not satisfied unless you literally die sacrificing yourself. Those people are idiots. If the rescuer goes down, everybody is doomed. Put your own mask on first. Find some goddamn happiness even when everything is hard—or at least write that triumph for your characters. Conflicts in romance don’t have to be fluffy and easily overcome. The more harrowing the road to happily ever after is, the more memorable the journey is and the greater the relief when they finally reach that destination.

This is not me telling anybody how to write their books. This is a pep talk for myself about not being a coward. I was conditioned for the better part of two decades that playing it safe is mandatory to achieve universal appeal. Up through the highest levels of publishing, there is a belief that all romance readers want an empty shell they can slide into and vicariously live a thrilling-but-not-dangerous adventure that doesn’t raise their blood pressure too much. While I’m sure those readers exist somewhere, that doesn’t describe me (I read to get away from myself, not to spread the curse to other worlds) or anyone I talk to about books, so we are getting screwed so this other group of readers we’ve never met that might well be imaginary can be served 99.999999% of the time. It’s not universal appeal when I want the heroine with the personality of unseasoned cream of wheat to fall off a cliff and be replaced with someone more interesting. It’s not universal appeal when I can’t identify the central conflict two seconds after putting the book down because it pales in comparison to my own arduous decisions, like whether it’s worth the extra money to choose 93% lean ground beef over 90%. It’s not universal appeal if I think the “alpha” hero is an abusive shitbag who never convincingly redeems himself and will probably murder the heroine on their honeymoon for insurance money. There is no such thing as universal appeal, but every day there are more books hitting the same boring notes in the quest to achieve it. I can’t go into a writing circle—even one dedicated to self-publishing—without seeing “advice” to new writers to gut their stories of anything that might be interesting, so there’s more samey-same to look forward to in the future.

My favorite part of self-publishing is that no one (other than the cowardly voice in my head) can tell me I can’t do something. I can write a heroine with depression, anxiety, and probable PTSD from childhood abuse who isn’t magically cured at the end of the story. I can write a heroine who isn’t ecstatic about her “good girl” role because it makes her a dumping ground for people who know she won’t say no. I can write about people who continue to hate holidays and people who have addictions and Willy Wonka with the serial numbers filed off if I want to, and I can put it directly on the market where people can read it. Some of those people are going to hate it, and I am okay with that because I also hate reading books for which I am not the audience! Most people will fall in the “it was all right” range, and I am more than okay with that. But a few people will really understand where I was coming from. There is nothing better for my writer’s heart than getting an email that expresses exactly a point I wanted to make and wasn’t sure I accomplished short of jamming “HEY, I HAVE A POINT AND I AM NOW GOING TO TELL IT TO YOU” into the story. I have an email from a reader who said it was a “relief” to see feelings she can’t say out loud on the page without judgment, and I treasure it so much, I’ve thought about getting it tattooed somewhere I can look at it all the time. I wouldn’t have that if I’d pulled my punches, played it safe, written down to the people who simply aren’t the audience for my product, and stifled what I know in my heart of hearts needs to be said.

(Comes up for air 3,500 words later, thinking I probably should have spent the time more productively.)

So, yeah, I read a book I liked. Maybe buy it, especially if it’s still $1.

And whatever you’re doing, be courageous. There are enough people trying to hold you back, so for fuck’s sake, don’t trap yourself. Kick open the doors standing in your way and stride through like happily ever after is waiting for you on the other side.

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