dirty The TBR Challenge theme for August is hot, steamy reads. In a sense, the book I chose, Megan Hart’s Dirty, published by Harlequin Spice in 2007, fits the bill. The story contains plentiful sex scenes, and they certainly are steamy. However, that’s not what stands out most about this book. This story contains some of the most intense plotting and interesting characters I’ve read in ages, and it tackles issues not often encountered in romance of any subgenre. I don’t know why I let this book sit in my TBR so long, but it was an amazing find, and I’d give it an A-, Desert Island Keeper status.

Part of the story’s intensity comes from its narration. The heroine, Elle Kavanaugh, tells her story, and the twists and turns of her complex mind by turns draw sympathy, interest, and sometimes frustration from the reader. In many ways, Elle has hardened her heart. She wields sex as a weapon and lives a life of isolation. As a VP in an accounting firm, she’s obviously successful professionally, but she has few friends and little more than a string of one night stands to show for a romantic life. That starts to change as the story opens.

Though their first encounter involves no sex, not even a kiss, the meeting between Dan Stewart and Elle just crackles. They flirt, taste whiskey, and Dan drops Elle off at her home. It all sounds a little boring, but there’s so much more than that. It’s enough that the encounter sticks in Elle’s mind afterwards and when she meets her mystery man again, things heat up quickly. They have sex, lots of it – everything from encounters in public restrooms to a threesome, but Elle is determined not to let emotion get involved. Dan and Elle enjoy all kinds of physical intimacy, but she lets him know very little about her and asks almost nothing about him.

Unlike previous men in Elle’s life, Dan doesn’t settle for this. It’s obvious he cares about Elle – cares so much it’s almost painful to see her pull away from him again and again. Inside Elle’s mind, the reader knows almost from the beginning that Elle carries all kinds of scars. At first, we get only hints of horrible secrets and scenes of a truly dysfunctional family. We see Elle’s mother nagging and hear of her father’s drinking, and we know that her gay brother has fled to California. However, Elle only gives away hints at first, letting them build on each other until finally the truth comes out in uncomfortably powerful scenes near the end of the book.

As Elle lets Dan and the reader into her life more and more, everything in this book starts to change. In the early chapters of the book, the sex is fun, a little kinky, but somehow a little distant. As Elle’s walls start to crumble, tenderness and intimacy start working their way into her encounters with Dan. It’s certainly not an even journey. She tends to go two steps forward and one painful step back. However, while Elle can be a truly frustrating narrator, her pain bleeds through and one cannot help empathizing even at the moments where she behaves in most unlikeable fashion.

This book goes to all kinds of deep and dark places. Elle has lived through all kinds of betrayal and men in her life have treated her terribly. The scars of her past run deep, and this comes out often in the story. One thing I loved about this book was that Elle didn’t just snap out of things unrealistically quickly, nor did hero sex somehow magically “fix” her. Dan is a wonderful, amazingly patient hero, but so much of this story centers on Elle growing and changing. Only Elle can realize what Dan offers her, only Elle can come to terms with her past, and only Elle can learn how to make friends and interact with the world around her. This journey often involves pain, but there’s a redemptive side to the book that comes out beautifully.

Powerfully written, Dirty explores not only sex, but family relationships, self worth and religion. It’s certainly steamy and erotic, but the sex tells a story; it’s not the sum total of the book in and of itself. I know that public bathroom sex and threesomes aren’t usual book club fare, but this story made me think and feel more than most books I’ve read, and this book contains plenty of meat for discussion. It’s a beautifully poignant novel, and one that I find myself wanting to talk about with people.

– Lynn Spencer