The Bequest: A BDSM Romance, by Christina Thacher

I haven’t been reading erotic romance for a while, and the total of BDSM romances I’ve read is fairly small. But I thought I’d give this one a try when a friend mentioned the plot on Twitter:

Sara leads a double life: CFO by day, sexual submissive at night. When her Master dies suddenly, Sara discovers his will leaves her to his nephew, as though she’s a valuable piece of furniture. She’s ready to move into a hotel when she gets her first sight of the new owner, gorgeous six-foot-five Cal. Sara has a sudden desire to kneel at his feet. Only problem, he’s not a Dom.
Cal, a gifted but impoverished composer, barely knew his uncle. So it’s a shock to inherit Bruno’s fortune … and his sexual submissive. Under the terms of the will, they’ll have to live as roommates before Cal can deed the house to her. Smart, lovely and graceful, Sara drives Cal crazy with desire. Only problem, he’s not a Dom.Cal is used to directing an orchestra to create the performance he wants, but he has to visit The Club to understand why his uncle left him The Bequest.

 

First off, because you never know what you are getting these days with an unknown author and unknown (self-published?) press. I’m happy to report that The Bequest is well-written at the basic level and competently edited. I didn’t have to groan my way through spelling errors, grammatical mistakes or any obvious flaws in logic or fact.

But that’s not why I read romance. I read for the story, which is why I sometimes persevere even with poorly edited books. I liked some of the characters in this one, especially the hero, but the way that BDSM was portrayed left me so confused that I kept getting jerked out of the story to try to make psychological sense of what was happening.

First off, the story started with a disclaimer I’ve never seen in a BDSM romance. Here’s the first bit:

No endorsement of BDSM by the author or the publisher is implied by the inclusion of BDSM activities in this story, and neither the author nor the publisher can be held responsible for the consequences of actions taken by any reader.

Thacher, Christina (2013-09-14). The Bequest: A BDSM Romance (Lawyer to the Doms) (Kindle Locations 12-14). Harmony Road Press. Kindle Edition.

Ok, so Cal is a starving composer and has no interest in a sexual slave. Sara is also a bit miffed to be left “like a particularly fine bit of furniture” to a stranger. But Cal wants to live in the big fancy house and Sara doesn’t want to leave, so while they both understand that legally, no contract can leave a person to a another person (the estate lawyer helpfully references the 13th Amendment just in case there was any doubt), they are living together for the time being.  It wasn’t clear to me why Sarah, who is a professional with financial means, wanted to stay in the house, especially when she herself thinks, “this is insane”,  but since proximity to Cal is necessary to get the story off the ground, I went with it.

As is very typical in erotic romances of all kinds, Sara and Cal are immediately attracted to each other. Trouble is, Cal thinks BDSM requires disrespecting women, and Sara thinks Cal isn’t a Dom. Helpfully, the dead uncle’s lawyer, a Dom, brings Cal to The Club and schools him in BDSM by having him watch a scene. The musician in Cal likens the female sub’s moans to opera (all the doms are male and subs female in this book) and decides “This isn’t peep show porno. This is art.” He thinks some more:

Cal had nothing against modern women. He’d even loved a couple of the women he’d slept with. But when they talked in bed, saying what they liked and didn’t like, the “yes, do that” and “harder, right there” stuff—well, Mac had been right. That would be like having the first cello tell Cal what he needed to do as a conductor. Not the way to get the best performance from anyone.

Thacher, Christina (2013-09-14). The Bequest: A BDSM Romance (Lawyer to the Doms) (Kindle Locations 777-779). Harmony Road Press. Kindle Edition.

This was a confusing passage for me, because it seems like Cal is making a judgment about the way anyone should have sex. But whatever, because he forgets this as soon as it’s Sara who starts giving him directions (“That thing with your thumb- please keep doing that.”). At any rate, he takes to his new role with lightening speed, much to Sara’s delight. To me on the outside, BDSM seems like a highly formalized and ritualized culture. I get that BDSM is an identity, but even as a natural born wizard Harry Potter had to go to Hogwarts for a few years before he could learn magic.

They discuss limits, and when Sara says a firm no to “humiliation play,” Cal gets judgey again: “Jesus God. People did that? That was emotional abuse.” Later is it revealed that Sara’s former master also believed that “humiliation play” is “abusive.” (As an aside, I wonder if everyone who identifies on the BDSM spectrum agrees with that. If its consensual, I’m not sure why it is so different from “impact play.” But it doesn’t matter what I think. It’s what the characters think.)

Sara takes Cal down to the dungeon, which has a cage that “terrifies” her, and here’s another part of the story I couldn’t understand. Sara had “no chemistry” with her Master. He was much older “which meant that her heart had not been involved.” She did not have intercourse with him, sleep with him, or spend any time with him outside of the scene (if I am using “scene” correctly. I mean when they are “on stage”?). She misses him, but not as a man, only as a “top.”  Her relationship with him was based in discipline, not sexual pleasure. He would put her in the cage if she needed it. She saw his dominance as a way to “improve her emotional stability.” As another Dom put it:

“When Bruno first brought her, Sara was barely manageable. I gather she was doing well at work, but at The Club, she was resentful, mouthy, insolent. We had more than a few meetings to discuss whether she should be kicked out. Bruno insisted there was a wonderful sub inside the wild woman. To his credit, he was right.”

Thacher, Christina (2013-09-14). The Bequest: A BDSM Romance (Lawyer to the Doms) (Kindle Locations 1629-1631). Harmony Road Press. Kindle Edition.

I guess it’s inevitable that an older male Dom, young female sub seems a bit father/daughter to me, which explains why I felt, at a bare minimum, Sara needed to live on her own and mature a little before engaging in a new relationship.

If Sara had to rush right into another relationship, I thought maybe the one with Cal would serve as a counterpoint to the one with Bruno, and to some extent it did: Sara was much more sexually connected to Cal, they went on dates, and Cal was a lighter hand with the whip (he also had the cage removed). But when he punishes Sara at one point for not sharing her feelings, he says “this is not a scene and you’re not here to have a good time.” So this was part of the scene? Or not? I gather what the book is saying is that Sara “needed” this, but for obvious reasons it didn’t exactly resonate with me as a reader. Although she has a high powered career, Sara slips into the role of servant pretty much at all times at home, cooking Cal meals even when their relationship is neither Dom/sub nor romantic. She’s an emotional wreck, quite dependent, servile, and fragile, and no textual insistence she is “strong” or reminding the reader she is a “CFO” really counterbalances that.

A very rushed HEA ends The Bequest. Basically, Cal gets Sara to open up emotionally: “Okay, so tell me what you’re hiding under the BDSM stuff. I can take it, I promise.” She’s a typical character in romance, an unnecessary self-loather, but a quick unconditional acceptance chat from Cal fixes all. I wondered at this point if the book wasn’t pulling a kind of Fifty Shades move, where, at least for Sara, BDSM was a kind of unhealthy way to deal with childhood trauma.

The Bequest has a kind of outlandish but intriguing premise. I liked that Cal was a Dom who would leave notes with smiley faces. The Club and its patrons were portrayed in a morally neutral way. One amusing chapter had three doms at home discussing problems with their subs in a kind of informal BDSM support group. I could be much more critical of the problematic elements in this book, but I feel with BDSM I have to be careful that I am not just misunderstanding an unfamiliar sexual culture. Still, I do understand the romance genre, and this is a romance. I have to say this book, and especially the character of Sara, made little psychological sense to me, so I couldn’t get invested at all in her HEA.

8 responses

  1. This book does sound outlandish, but I agree that in the smattering of BDSM erotica novels I’ve read, the premise used to throw together the H/h is often utterly ridiculous. If there are no distracting self-pub issues re. editing and grammar, I am usually OK to suspend the utter disbelief in order to approach the whole book as an artifice, a ritualized ‘scene.’ If the characters make sense, I can sometimes get on board for the emotional journey to the HEA. I haven’t read this book so I don’t really have anything useful to say — but your careful review has helped me begin sorting out some of my impressionistic responses to this genre. So thank you! And what did you make of the disclaimer? I have seen similar ones but not so legal-sounding.

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    • The disclaimer surprised me. I hadn’t seen that before. Does it suggest that a reader won’t know the difference between fantasy and reality? Or that readers are so easily influenced by what they read they might run out and copy it unthinkingly? I was thinking about the cases where teens, after seeing movie stunts, try the same thing. The Jackass films have disclaimers, as do car commercials with stunt drivers. Is BDSM akin to those things? Is the audience for this book akin to those audiences? As a romance reader, I’m reading for entertainment. So I personally don’t feel I need the disclaimers. But I guess it doesn’t hurt?

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  2. This sounds kind of terrible.

    “To me on the outside, BDSM seems like a highly formalized and ritualized culture.” Personally, I think that BDSM *fiction* has developed some pretty strict conventions, particularly BDSM erotic romance. The author needs to establish consensuality, and a basic level of safety, while still bringing in the risky elements that bring the adrenaline.

    “I wonder if everyone who identifies on the BDSM spectrum agrees [that humiliation play is abusive]” Clearly not, or people wouldn’t do it. I doubt everyone on any spectrum is in 100% agreement on anything. People are people, after all. It does sound like the author is bringing some of her personal judgment to the page.

    I know there are people who indulge (maybe that’s the wrong word?) in BDSM without a sexual element…. I just can’t quite wrap my head around *why* that would be. It doesn’t seem like a mentally/emotionally healthy lifestyle, although it’s possible that I could be convinced otherwise. I don’t know.

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    • Thanks for these comments. I had a hard time figuring out what part was dominance/submission sex play and what part was Sara being messed up by a terrible childhood. Maybe even needing that distinction, maybe even needing to know “ok, this is sex, and this is not” shows my ignorance. I guess feel that if something is a scene, mutual consent is 95% of what matters [not my view IRL, but what I can handle in BDSM fic], whereas if it is not a scene, if it is just the two people (who, I assume, are no more 100% defined by their sexual orientation than I am by mine), then I need more emotional health, agency, all that stuff.

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  3. I really appreciate the thoughtful approach you take here, because my initial response to some of the quotes is “WTF?” But what knowledge I (think I) have about BDSM comes partly, though not entirely, from erotica/erotic romance reading. And as Nicola says, a lot of that has its own formalized tropes and conventions. While some writers are kinky, a lot of them are not, and the level of their research seems pretty variable to me. So while I take the depiction of BDSM in books like this with a grain of salt and think there’s a lot of “going with a fantasy set-up” involved (as Pamela says), it also behooves me not to be too judgmental about the portrayals, because really, what do I know? (not much) I like how you just asked questions/expressed confusion.

    That said, I think world-building is as important in this kind of story as in any other. Even if it isn’t “accurate” (and I don’t think there is One True Way), character motivations and actions should make sense to a reader.

    I am not as good at going with the set-up as some readers. I kind of got stuck on the question of whether a lawyer wrote that will, and whether a lawyer would allow someone to make a bequest that is not legally enforceable. This would make more sense to me as a more informal bequest that Sara felt to be binding because of her agreement with her Dom.

    Also that passage about how modern women tell you what to do in bed and that’s not the way to get the best performance . . . I guess maybe that’s meant to show that Cal is a natural Dom but the way it’s expressed is very off-putting to me. I prefer my erotic reading not to enrage me.

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    • Yeah, the “benefit of the doubt” is the new blogging me! Let’s see how long it lasts.

      I think the lawyer is in all the books (the series is actually called “Lawyer to the Doms”) as kind of an advisor/friend to the characters involved in the Club. I felt that the bequest was more of an informal one, like, “I would really like you guys to try this for me.” Why either of them agreed is a good question.

      That bit about modern women (who under the age of 65 even says that anyway?) was actually out of character for Cal. He’s generally a very kind and supportive hero.

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  4. I can accept the idea that for some BDSM exists without a romantic/sexual component. But then if Sara and her former Master had no relationship outside of BDSM, why was she living in his house?

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    • I’ve actually loaned the book and can’t refer to it to answer this, but IIRC, she was very dependent on him, not financially but emotionally.

      The author had to do something pretty impossible: show that Sara had no emotional connection to Master, which is why she’s so quickly (within days) open to sex and love with Cal (and hence not a cold bitch), while at the same time, giving her enough of a sense of loyalty to him and a feeling that his home was her home to motivate her to stay.

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