Despite being partly influenced by the publishing success of E. L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey, L. Marie Adeline’s S.E.C.R.E.T. is nothing like 50 Shades. There is a romance in Adeline’s book, but it’s almost incidental, barely even explored. Rather, S.E.C.R.E.T. is about a woman’s journey to self-discovery through sexual fulfillment. At times, S.E.C.R.E.T. reads more like a self-help book than erotica, and that’s not just because the erotic scenes are (in my limited experience with erotic fiction at least) very vanilla. The focus of the story is very much on protagonist Cassie Robichaud’s struggle to gain self-confidence and believe in herself, independent of a relationship.
I received the 89 page sampler of this book over the holidays — I was drawn in to Cassie’s situation and wanted to keep reading to see her succeed. I love the concept behind the book — a woman has a series of sexual fantasies fulfilled, and she is in control the entire time. The men are, for the most part, meant to be anonymous — they are there primarily to give the woman pleasure, in ways she decides. It’s a reversal of traditional notions of porn, and a welcome departure from the usual literary formula of women having amazing, mind blowing sex only when paired with romance.
Unfortunately, Adeline ends up emphasizing the self-empowerment angle a tad too much. It’s great seeing Cassie come into her own, and I love that when offered a couple of chances at romantic relationships, Cassie instead opts to continue with the S.E.C.R.E.T. program. But there were times when reading the book felt like watching Oprah or Dr. Phil. Particularly in the latter half of the book, the dialogue and narration became much more earnest, even saccharine, and while I’m all for self-empowerment, I hate feeling preached at. Enough, already. For a book with such an innovative concept, the latter half devolved into more traditional, touchy-feely fare. One of the scenes near the end, a non-sexual step, where Cassie is prompted to do something she’d never dared before seriously felt like a Saved by the Bell episode.
The erotic scenes, as I mentioned were fairly vanilla. I understand every woman has a different set of fantasies, and Adeline appears to have attempted to cover the most generic ones, so that at least one of them would probably appeal to each reader. Personally, I thought the fantasies could have been hotter, and even the hottest ones seem to have been toned down. There are erotic details, but the fantasies themselves seem like a Disney-fied version of Harlequin Blaze. Adeline does not pull back on sexual details, but the men were a series of sweet, gentlemanly Prince Charmings. This, admittedly, is a personal response more than anything. Each woman has different sexual fantasies, and while some of Cassie’s fantasies may leave me cold, I’m sure they will appeal to a lot of other readers. As well, some of the erotic scenes are really well-written and sensual, taking the reader into Cassie’s experience.
That being said, and I think this is because Adeline tried to cover such a wide range of fantasies, the scenes themselves felt generic. The men were one-dimensional, which is understandable given the story’s focus, but they seemed faceless, cardboard cutouts and hardly erotic. Worse, after the first few, they started to feel like paint by number scenes — different man, different situation, perhaps different method, but overall, utterly bland, forgettable and almost interchangeable. It felt like going through the motions of fantasies, ticking a number of boxes, but ultimately lacking the fire. There is a development to Cassie’s responses to the fantasies, which is good, but with the exception of the subplot love interest, who was woefully underdeveloped, the men eventually started looking like a succession of Ken dolls.
I did like how many of the men complimented Cassie’s looks. At first, like Cassie, I figured it was all just part of the fantasy, but as other men started doing it, like Cassie, I also began wondering if perhaps she really was much more attractive than she realized. The scattered references to 50 Shades were amusing, and so subtle that I wondered if they were even planned. (I hope they were!) I also liked the bit of romance at the end, though I found it much too rushed. The ending felt forced, written only to set up for the sequel.
Wonderful concept, uneven execution, but overall worth a read just for the idea behind it.
Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.