Public Displays of Affection, by Susan Donovan

>> Monday, September 19, 2005

I felt like something funny and sexy, so I grabbed Public Displays of Affection, by Susan Donovan.

Charlotte Tasker has always been a good girl, so she married the most decent, reliable man she could find even though their love life was a bit on the predictable side. Thirteen years later, she's a widowed mom who runs her company, prepares three vegetarian meals a day for her children, and volunteers for just about every good deed in town. But no one knows that Charlotte has a secret weakness for squirt cheese, erotic poetry-and the mystery man she lost her virginity to in a reckless roadside tryst, moments before she got engaged. They never exchanged names, and even now, Charlotte can't stop fantasizing about that spectacular stranger...

DEA agent Joe Bellacera isn't crazy about having to hide out in Minton, Ohio before testifying at the trial of a notorious drug lord. But he's handling it just fine...until he lays eyes on a fiery redhead and a hot little body he'd recognize anywhere. Joe's never had another woman like Charlotte since that day thirteen years ago. Now she's his neighbor-and strictly off-limits...

Amid the balmy, honeysuckle-scented breezes of a Midwestern summer, sense and sensibility are about to be subverted by an ice cream-loving dog, conspiring kids, and nosy neighbors. And when the Widow Tasker's fantasies meet the rock-hard reality of Agent Bellacera, let the fireworks begin...
I liked this one even more than Take a Chance on Me. A B+.

I really enjoyed Charlotte. She's the complete opposite to the usual heroine conflicted about her sexuality. It's very common to see heroines who, because of some bad or mediocre experiences, have become convinced that they are frigid. Charlotte, however, does not think she's frigid at all. In fact, she thinks she's over-sexed. We don't have this whole scenario of the hero awakening her sexuality here. The thing with Joe is that, with him, Charlotte can let loose and be herself and do all those things she's wanted to do forever, but couldn't because her partner didn't want them.

I've read a lot of condemnation for her behaviour in the message boards I read. Basically, people seem to have hated her for her willingness to sleep with another man on the side of the road, when she was on her way to pick up her boyfriend at the airport and accept his proposal of marriage. Well, my own 2 cents is that yes, it was cheating on her part and she behaved badly. It's always wrong to cheat. Thing is, I could understand perfectly well why she did it, and understanding her made all the difference.

There was this huge struggle going on inside Charlotte, between what she thought she ought to want and what she really did want. Her upbringing (and remember she's very young at the time) told her she should want someone like Kurt, that sex isn't supposed to be joyful and beautiful, it's supposed to be something sinful, to be resisted before marriage and endured after it. Meanwhile, the person she really is inside it all doesn't feel that way at all.

At the time she meets Joe, Charlotte has just been disappointed because she'd been anticipating her life with Kurt as a married couple. She hadn't just been eagerly anticipating the companionship, but a life in which, at long last, she would be able to unleash her desires. And then Kurt makes it very clear that he's not all that interested in sex, so the inescapable conclusion to her is that she'll spend the rest of her life sexually unsatisfied.

And here's where her upbringing comes in: instead of having a hard thought about whether she really should be marrying Kurt when they're obviously so unsuited in this arena, Charlotte simply accepts it, because she feels she's the one in the wrong, the one who's wanting things that she shouldn't want. And so, she takes that opportunity with Joe to, at least once in her lifetime, do what she wants to do.

I thought the description of what her marriage was like was excellently done. Donovan doesn't take the easy way out by demonizing Kurt. He's not a bad guy at all, he's a loving husband and father and Charlotte does love him, too. It's just that his sex drive is way lower than Charlotte's, and their inhibitions don't allow them to solve this problem: Charlotte's inhibitions because they don't allow her to really spell out what she's feeling and give Kurt an ultimatum (let's go to a therapist or else) and Kurt's inhibitions because his embarrassment doesn't allow him to understand what's behind Charlotte's occasional requests for stuff he thinks is perverted, behind her masturbating, behind her (terrible) erotic poetry and even behind her addiction to that disgusting-sounding squirt cheese thing.

I just read what I've been writing, and it's all Charlotte, Charlotte, Charlotte. Which is about right, because while I very much enjoyed Joe, it's Charlotte's character that shines in this book. It's more her story than anything else. But a few words about Joe: I just loved the way he'd been so stuck on his memories of Charlotte for all those years. It's the ultimate fantasy, that this quick one-night (or rather, one-afternoon) stand will so haunt the guy that he won't just forget it, but obsess about it for years and years. Both that, and the way he immediately know that what he really wants is to be part of Charlotte's life forever (if only he could be sure his presence won't endanger her and her kids), was very satisfying.

And when they finally get together, oh, wow! It's a steamy read, but Donovan also managed to show how these two people connected and fell in love, as well as in lust.

I also loved the cast of secondary characters. Matt and Hank, Charlotte's children, were well-drawn and likeable, and so were her neighbours, Bonnie and Ned. But the best was LoriSue, a character who I worried at first would be the very stereotypical evil, trashy, career-woman other woman. I loved what Donovan did with LoriSue, the way she drew her very sympathetically and gave her a very happy ending.

The suspense subplot was just fine. I don't tend to be a fan of on-the-run-from-organized-crime plots, but I liked how Donovan handled this. I'm not sure exactly how the bad guys did find Joe in the end (it felt like a bit too much of a coincidence, though just as much of a coincidence as Joe ending up living next door to Charlotte, actually), but other than that, it was all great. I especially enjoyed how there were absolutely no TSTL moments in this and how the issue of the danger to Joe's life was resolved.

Can't wait to read Donovan's last book. It's on its way here as I write this, ETA: mid November!

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