Under Her Skin
Uma Crane is on the run from an abusive relationship. Once upon a time she was a wedding photographer in Northern Virginia, in love with a blue-eyed prosecutor named Joey, who charmed her with his Frank Sinatra-like demeanor. They were so into one another that each had the other’s name tattooed on their back. Unfortunately, Uma soon discovered Joey’s possessiveness was poisonous and tried to leave him. Joey used his city connections to find Uma, whom he then raped and held captive, tattooing her entire body with the word ‘mine’ and smashing her beloved cameras.
Uma broke free and fled back to safety of Blackwood on the other side of Virginia, hoping to take advantage of affordable therapy and medical benefits as well as put some distance between her and Joey. She refuses to be a victim or to tell her mother where she’s going, knowing that would lead Joey to her side; and in fact, a brief phone conversation with her mother leads to a lecture and Joey’s sudden appearance at a temporary shelter. With no way of supporting herself after Joey freezes her bank account, Uma has to take a job looking after a verbally abusive, paranoid and reclusive old woman named Ms. Lloyd. Her only source of comfort is burly Ivan, the guy next door, a blacksmith with an intimidating look, a primitive house and a heart of gold who takes in stray abuse animals and wrestles at the gym to get rid of his excess anger. While there are minor bumps in the relationship – she learns that he placed the insulting ad that got her the job and there is some confusion about Ivan’s marital status – Uma is considering a permanent life with Ivan, but Joey is always present in the shadows, lurking and waiting to claim his revenge.
This book could not have divided my emotions more thoroughly. On one hand, Ms. Anders get a lot of things right about what it feels like to survive rape and domestic violence. The suffocating panic and the horrifying thoughts; the shame when visiting a doctor to have her tattoos lasered off, her pursuit of self-defense classes and her panic on seeing men who look like Joey; these all feel like real and true to life reactions. This part of the story would make a fine dramatic novel. The author is also smart enough to state that Uma has to fix her own problems, rather than be ‘fixed’ by Ivan’s love. I loved Uma, and I wanted to see her succeed in reclaiming control of her life. Ms. Lloyd, too, develops into something much deeper as the novel progresses, though she gets an unnecessary eleventh hour abuse-related backstory.
Ive is a nice enough guy who – for some reason – speaks like a film noir detective while comparing Uma’s abusive relationship to the abuse of his favorite dog. Yikes. I’ve seen many characters like Ive in romancelandia lately – the burly guy with a past whose soft heart is displayed by his love of abused animals and women, who eventually chops off his hair and beard as a show of domestication. He has a past that I’ll leave up to the reader to discover, but it proves him to be honorable, if claimed by violent instincts.
But the relationship feels more like a problem than anything else, mostly because of how it plays out. That Uma reclaims her sexuality by having Ive play the submissive is a bit of a pat plot turn. The sex scenes that follow are loaded with a bizarre sense of self loathing, including Uma thinking to herself in a frenzy that she doesn’t deserve tenderness, only to be used – Ive’s submissiveness mirrors this. The second time they have sex – non penetrative because he’s forgotten the condom – she’s imagining him impregnating her. Does this seem realistic given this is a woman who broke out of an extremely abusive relationship just six months earlier? The third sex scene, where they explain their scars, works much better. He doesn’t even know what her middle name is by the end of the book!
The romantic element of the novel feels almost unnecessary given the weight accorded Uma’s character development and the import of her recovery. I definitely don’t mean to say that victims of abuse wouldn’t have erotic thoughts or vaguely explore their kinks or entertain relationships. The book would have worked better as a straight-up dramatic novel with a romantic subplot rather than other way around, because the erotic element is so bungled – no more so than when Ive makes an end-of-book decision that leaves the audience slapping their own foreheads in dismay. This is followed by Uma making an even more credulity straining decision (that it works out for her perfectly is obvious.) It’s this ending that ultimately resulted in me downgrading the rating.
Under Her Skin is a complicated one for me to rate. It’s hard to recommend it as a romance, yet it provides a compelling story with sympathetic characters. In the end it’s both complex and frustrating, interesting and flawed, and annoying but beguiling.