If you’re not familiar with Emma Holly’s name, you should be aware that her books are a bit different from other romance novels. Before moving into the historical romance arena, she wrote straight erotica for Black Lace, among other publishers. Classifying this book is difficult as it is more sexually explicit than just about anything else on the romance shelf. But even though it was originally published as erotica, Berkeley is marketing it more as romantica in its new release.
Personal Assets is about an elite French fashion company called Meilleurs Amis (best friends), and about best friends Beatrix Clouet and Lela Turner. The store was founded by Bea’s grandmother and run by her mother, a sharkish woman who recently passed away. The majority shareholder in Meilleurs Amis is Philip Carmichael, Bea’s gorgeous stepfather, who is only six years Bea’s elder. That’s fine with Bea: she’s not interested in running the store. She is, and always has been, interested in her stepfather.
Meanwhile, Bea’s American friend Lela wants to take a chance. Philip needs a manager for the New York store, and Lela wants the job. She has no experience beyond a love of fashion and shopping, so she begs Philip to let her work as a clerk at the store to learn the ropes. Philip agrees to give Lela the job, a decision that puts an unexpected strain on Lela and Bea’s relationship: Bea thinks that Lela is more beautiful and glamorous than she is, and now she’s about to be more successful, too. But soon Lela has other things on her mind to worry about than Bea and Philip: she is seeing a powerful businessman named Simon Graves who, unbeknownst to her, plans to take over Meilleurs Amis.
This book is intensely sexual; we’re thrown into the first of many love scenes as early as page 7. Holly likes to push boundaries, and the erotic experimentation that the characters engage in may strike readers as kinky. However, this book is not pure erotica. The story centers on the personalities of these four characters, and plot developments play out during their steamy and frequent sexual encounters. Bea and Philip have a forbidden relationship: they are in love and sexually drawn to one another, but they fight their sexual urges and turn to other lovers to relieve their feelings. Lela and Simon, on the other hand, are comfortable giving and receiving sexual satisfaction – but sharing what lies in their hearts is nearly impossible for them.
If I had to grade the two stories separately, I’d give Lela and Simon’s story an A. The way these two wounded souls open up to one another is lovely and romantic, and their story also struck me as the more sensual of the two (a few points off for the fact that Lela, who has never held a steady job, manages to wear cashmere sweater-suits, real silk hosiery, and Manolo Blahnik shoes). Bea and Philip get a B: they are equally likable characters, with an equally sexy love story, but I had a hard time believing in a happily-ever-after ending between them. And, to tell the truth, I also had a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of a young woman getting it on with the guy who was married to her mom. That’s exactly the kind of idea that Holly likes to challenge, which is fine; but we never really understand what Philip’s feelings for Bea’s mother were, and what they are now as he embarks upon a relationship with his wife’s daughter.
For me, the big flaw in any intensely erotic romance is that, no matter how inventive and varied, the nonstop love scenes get tedious. This book mostly manages to circumvent that problem by focusing (for short stretches) on Meilleurs Amis or on Bea and Lela’s friendship, before returning us to the sexually charged drama of the characters’ lives. But still, it’s not a book you want to read in one sitting.
In the past I‘ve read and enjoyed several glam-and-glitz novels, even though they might not have featured the best writing in the world. Personal Assets is a fun, sexy, romantic read that reminded me a lot of Judith Krantz’s Scruples – only it’s better written. If you like these kinds of books, and if you can get past the ick factor of Bea and Philip’s relationship, this might be a book for you.