Take for instance The River of No Return, the debut novel by Bee Ridgway (which I was hoping would be heavier on the fantasy and lighter on the romance). It follows the story of 19th century marquess Nicholas Falcott, who upon facing death on the battlefield in Spain, disappears into thin air and travels through time to 2003. The novel starts off very strong, following Nick Devenant (the name he assumes in his new life) as he adjusts to the modern world with the help of a mysterious and wealthy organization called the Guild. He then spends a glorious decade fabulously rich (a gift from the Guild), sleeping his way through Vermont and New York City, only to be summoned by the Guild for an important mission.
Ridgway has some fresh ideas about time travel. Though she utilizes some well worn concepts about its implications and the notion of changing history, she introduces some elements of the familiar narrative that I haven’t read before. For this, I give Ridgway a pass for her wandering plot and truly pitiful dialogue. And the romance? It felt like an adornment rather than critical to the overall story, but I’m grateful for the handful of sex scenes (who doesn’t like a sex scene?)
In her depiction of “the deed -” particularly Nick and Julia’s first romp in a cupola – Ridgway slips too far into fantasy. I know, I know, I’ve already bought into the whole time travel thing, but nonetheless, in order for a story like this to plant its foundation firmly in reality – and therefore pass as believable and relatable – there has to be some accuracy. Otherwise, that mystical “suspension of disbelief” element just doesn’t happen.
She clung to him as he moved in her. She was flying up and up with him in widening circles, gripped by an exquisite vertigo that sang along every nerve; he clasped her to him and she felt him shudder and thrust in more deeply than before; she toppled off some high, windblown edge of pleasure into a deep, endless sea that was all the shifting colors of his eyes.
Come again? (Pun intended)
This is a description of sex meant for someone who has never had sex before, for someone still wrapped up in idealized fantasies of what sex will be like. And, I’m afraid, such idealized fantasies leave our male partners at a loss to meet such lofty expectations. But that’s a topic for another blog.
As a reader, I would rather have my fictionalized sex be like the actual sex I know and have in real life. I would rather the author be honest about the act and not decorate her descriptions of it with metaphor and flowery adjectives. I quite enjoyed Ian McEwan’s version in Atonement. It is depicts sex honestly, and yet still includes the sensation of blurry wonder that readers can relate to.
They began to make love against the library shelves which creaked with their movement. It is common enough at such times to fantasize arriving in a remote and high place. He imagined himself strolling on a smooth, rounded mountain summit, suspended between two higher peaks…It was a temptation to leap into clear space now, but he was a man of the world and he could walk away, and wait…He forced himself to remember the dullest things he knew…She was calling to him, inviting him, murmuring in his ear. Exactly so. They would jump together.
Though McEwan’s more direct depiction of Robbie and Cecelia’s library tryst is still veiled in metaphor, the reader still understands what is going on. Not so with Ridgway – I don’t think I’ve ever felt “exquisite vertigo.” I’m not even sure I know what that is.
When readers call a spade a spade and use descriptors that illustrate actual feelings and sensations, they make the act more real. Creepy as it is, I felt like I was in the library with Robbie and Cecelia during their private moment. But I wasn’t in the cupola with Nick and Julia. When, during an uncomfortable dinner that follows their interrupted love-making, Robbie yearns to finish what he started with Cecelia, you feel his desire and his longing. I never felt the heat with Nick and Julia. I was never with them at all.
And now for my favorite sex scene in a movie, ever. Don’t watch if you’re shy. But it’s quite accurate.