After Hours, by Cara McKenna

>> Friday, July 19, 2013

TITLE: After Hours
AUTHOR: Cara McKenna

PAGES: 281

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Erotic Romance

A dangerous infatuation with a rough and ready man...

Erin Coffey has been a nurse for years, but nothing’s prepared her for the physical and emotional demands of her new position. Needing to move closer to her dysfunctional family, she takes a dangerous job at Larkhaven Psychiatric Hospital, where she quickly learns that she needs protection—and she meets the strong, over-confident coworker who’s more than willing to provide it.

Kelly Robak is the type of guy that Erin has sworn she’d never get involved with. She’s seen firsthand, via her mess of a sister, what chaos guys like him can bring into a woman’s life. But she finds herself drawn to him anyway, even when he shows up at her door, not eager to take no for an answer.

What Erin finds even more shocking than Kelly’s indecent proposal is how much she enjoys submitting to his every command. But he can’t play the tough guy indefinitely. If they want to have more than just an affair, both will have to open up and reveal what they truly need.
Initially, I was very reluctant to read this book. Although a lot of the things people said about it sounded amazing, there were many people who were positively squeeing about how the hero is really bossy, and ohh, this is so sexy. This is obviously something that's a turn-on for some readers, but it isn't one for me. In fact, it's a huge, massive turn-off. My default reaction to hero bossiness (or any BDSM element, in general, where the man is the dominant partner) is to mentally urge the heroine to run far, far away, or at least to dig her heels in and resist, and not let the hero tell her what to do. It makes me pissy. The reason I'm going a bit TMI into my own personal turn-ons and turn-offs is because I don't want people who might feel the way I do to be put off reading this. Because, you see, the way it is done, with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, meant that I was absolutely fine with it. Yes, it did make me a little bit squirmy a couple of times, but I loved Erin and Kelly's relationship, and wouldn't change one thing about it. So please, don't let that element put you off if this book otherwise intrigues you.

Ok, let's backtrack a bit. After Hours is narrated by Erin Coffey, a young woman starting a new post as a psychiatric nurse. Although Erin has nursing experience, it was all as part of being a carer for her grandmother, so this is her first formal job. It's not an easy one. Erin will be working in a ward with men who often suffer from violent psychotic episodes. Not only that, the job is in a new city, where she has moved in order to be closer to her nephew and make sure he's ok with her fuck-up of a sister. So understandably, Erin is feeling a bit uncertain and off-balance.

From her first day at the hospital, Erin can't help but notice one of the orderlies, a huge, rough-looking man who practically exudes an air of confidence and calm and goes by the incongrously female name of Kelly. Kelly's attention is also drawn by Erin, and although she finds him scary and intimidating, the fact that he's wearing what she thinks is a wedding ring calms her down, and she accepts his offer of a friendly drink. This is clearly a man who knows what he's doing at work, and she needs all the help she can get. Kelly does provide that help, but after a while, he makes it clear to Erin that no, that isn't a wedding ring, and he's very attracted to her. He offers her a weekend of full-on sex, where he makes it clear he'll be in complete control, and in return, she'll get the best sex of her life. Actually, he doesn't just toss it out as a possibility, he pushes for it, in an aggressive way that to me, bordered on creepy.

At that point, my inside voice was kind of going "run away, run away, Erin", but the thing is, so was Erin's. The way McKenna writes her thought processes when she decides to accept Kelly's proposal convinced me completely. She doesn't have that hated (by me, at least) romance novel staple: the 'traitorous body'. Yes, Kelly makes her go weak in the knees, but she is perfectly capable of saying no, thank you very much. The thing is, she recognises the rarity of the chemistry between her and Kelly. She realises that if they get together, the sex will be truly phenomenal, and that's nothing to sneeze at. It's certainly nothing she's ever had before (she's not a virgin, she's just had ok lovers), and she suspects she might not ever have the chance again. So, once she gets to know Kelly a bit and starts to get an inkling of who he is, and that he's basically a good guy, there's no reason not to grab that chance with both hands. She's not convinced about his 'I'll be in control' thing, but she very rationally decides to try it out. She knows that if at any point she doesn't like it, she can just up and go. She's not pushed into it by Kelly's aggressiveness, she accepts in spite of it.

Erin doesn't up and leave during that weekend, and as I read what happens next that protesting voice in my head calmed down. In addition to the thoughtful writing, the reason this worked for me when I stay far, far away from BDSM, is that this isn't even close to heavy-duty, lifestyle-choice BDSM. As Jackie, from Romance Novels for Feminists put it in her review (which was what finally gave me the push to read this), "...his be-my-bed-slave thing struck me as a special-occasion deal, not his baseline sexual MO." Quite.

McKenna is excellent when exploring the theme of how a feminist character such as Erin can be with a man like Kelly and still not compromise her feminism in any way (Jackie, in the link in the previous paragraph, has an excellent and much more detailed analysis of this element). One of the reasons Erin's freaked out by the strength (hell, even the existence) of her attraction to Kelly is that he initially seems to her like the sort of complete and utter asshole her sister and mother have always gone for. An aggressive, sexist bully, in short. We see one such character here, but even without his presence to illustrate, I think I would have completely got what McKenna is saying. Kelly is nothing like that. He doesn't want to tear Erin down. He wants to be there for her to occasionally lean on while she stands on her own two feet, and that makes all the difference.

Erin and Kelly are among the best and most fully-realised characters I've ever read. As I read, I kept thinking "These are people like me." The interesting thing is that their circumstances and experiences are nothing like mine. Kelly and Erin don't make much money (in fact, as the book starts, Erin is underweight because while she was caring for her grandmother, she was living on what she describes as "the Social Security diet", something she says just in passing but which hit me right in the gut), work in physically and mentally draining jobs and live in quite a deprived area of the US. I share not one of those things. In fact, my experiences have been completely the opposite. And yet, I still thought "these are people like me". I think what it is is that they feel real and like they live in the real world, which is just not the case in most novels. So I was missing a comma: "These are people, like me".

I think this feeling of reality was helped by the normality with which the setting was written. Erin and Kelly live and work in a very impoverished town, one with few services or cultural amenities. But this is not used as a plot point. I kept half-expecting it to be, for Erin to witness a drug deal gone wrong, or something like that, and I don't know if that says worse things about my assumptions about impoverished areas or about how romance novelists have treated them in the past. But no, this is just where they live, just as so many people do. And that's exactly what McKenna did with their job at the hospital. Things happen there, but not big plotty things. It's everyday things, like having good and bad days, or opportunities for further professional development coming up. Reality, again.

And by the way, I don't know how correct the description of what Erin and Kelly's job entails is, but if it's even half right, I'm in awe of the real people who do it. Work this valuable to society should be a lot better paid, and it angers me that in every country I've lived it, it isn't valued the way it should be.

Finally, I have to say, I thought the writing was amazing. McKenna has a knack for coming up with images and similes that feel fresh and original and perfect. For instance:

Kelly and I had basically spent all of Thursday and Friday in one long, carnal conversation. No wonder my body felt hoarse.
'You need something to sleep in?' he asked, answering my unspoken question and filling me to the brim with a weird, giddy energy, like I was suddenly made of kittens."
(Ok, that last one is right on the line between great and WTF, but I can totally, viscerally feel what being 'made of kittens' means, so to me, it's definitely great).

This is a fantastic, wonderful book. I've racked my brain trying to think if there were any negatives here, and all I can come up with is that McKenna overuses the word "smirk". Kelly smirks a bit too often. That's it.



CD,  23 July 2013 at 16:54  

This looks really good - mostly because the two leads seem to be real people! Hurrah for small mercies ;-).

Rosario 23 July 2013 at 20:03  

Read it, read it! Yes, they're very much real people. I mean, Kelly is not your average bloke, but I got the feeling his larger-than-life quality was because of the intensity of Erin's attraction to him, as we were seeing him through her eyes.

Christine,  24 July 2013 at 20:54  

Cara McKenna is a phenomenal writer in both her incarnations. The only criticism I have had before of any of her works is that earlier she had problems creating the situations that brought the couple together and sometimes the endings were a little Deus Ex Machina. Her dialogue (IMHO) is unsurpassed. She writes dialogue that is 100% believable without any cutesy romance cliches. The conversations her heroes and heroines have are complicated and believable and her protagonists (while from every level of education and "class" are all smart. There is no dumbing down or condescension towards the "working class" in her works.
If you had told me what would become of my favorite romance novels was set in a high security mental institution between two health care workers I probably wouldn't have believed you but I have learned to follow pretty much wherever McKenna cares to go.
My prediction is one of her books will eventually "hit" with mainstream romance readers and there will be a big general glom of her works.

Rosario 27 July 2013 at 08:57  

This was my first by her, and I think an unreasonably optimistic part of me was hoping the rest of the books in her backlist were just as good. Probably a good idea to adjust my expectations a bit, so thanks for that. They do sound pretty good, though!

I hear you when you say you wouldn't have necessarily expected to love a book with this plot and setting quite as much. To be completely honest, I only bought it because I thought I should, a sort of 'send a message that we want non-millionaire characters' thing. It took me a while to then pick it up, and I did so with trepidation. It sucked me in immediately.

I do hope you're right about her becoming a mainstream hit, as long as she's allowed to keep writing regular people!

Christine,  6 August 2013 at 00:37  

If you are looking for another McKenna/Maguire book I would recommend "The Reluctant Nude" next. It would be a great follow up to this one because th hero is very different than the hero in "After Hours". I really enjoyed it because it is all exposition between the hero and heroine and their relationship and there are no silly subplots (mysteries etc) thrown in to pad the book and to distract from it. If you can overlook the premise of why they are thrown together and a few things like that I think you will thoroughly enjoy the characters and their relationship. It also has an unusual setting that the author seems to know very well.

Rosario 6 August 2013 at 20:32  

Thanks so much, Christine, I was wondering which one to start next. I do have it (I completely glommed her backlist as soon as I finished After Hours), so I'll move it up in the TBR. I can definitely overlook iffy set-ups as long as the relationship is good, so this looks perfect.

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