Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Review: Comfort Food

Title: Comfort Food
Author: Kitty Thomas
Genre: Erotica/Psychological Thriller
Price: $2.99 eBook
Publisher: Burlesque Press
ISBN: 978-0-9819436-1-9
Point of Sale: Amazon and Smashwords
Reviewed By: Cheryl Anne Gardner

Book Description: Emily Vargas has been taken captive. As part of his conditioning methods, her captor refuses to speak to her, knowing how much she craves human contact. He's far too beautiful to be a monster. Combined with his lack of violence toward her, this has her walking a fine line at the edge of sanity. Told in the first person from Emily's perspective, Comfort Food explores what happens when all expectations of pleasure and pain are turned upside down, as whips become comfort and chicken soup becomes punishment.

Disclaimer: This is not a story about consensual BDSM. This is a story about “actual” slavery. If reading an erotic story without safewords makes you uncomfortable, this is not the book for you. This is a work of fiction, and the author does not endorse or condone any behavior done to another human being without their consent.

With a disclaimer like that, I knew this submission was something I would like to read, especially since I am a huge fan of John Fowles' best selling novel The Collector and the chilling 1965 film adaptation of the book. Yes, I am addicted to the dark matter, and, pretty much when it comes to fiction, nothing is too taboo for me to read, and if you have read Fowles' book or seen the film, you will feel like you are in familiar territory; although this story has a much more psycho-sexual bent to it.

At the start of our story, our female protagonist, Emily Vargas, a writer/public speaker and an inadvertent “voice” of women everywhere, finds herself blindfolded and tied to a chair in a dark and silent room. The sensory deprivation sends her spiralling into a lengthy monologue focused on the “how could this happen to me” conundrum. At this point, the monologue is used to explore our victim’s background and her discomfort with her own sexuality, which aptly solidifies the thesis of the story. She liked it when her first boyfriend forced oral sex on her. She was on the receiving end in that situation, so in her mind, it couldn’t be rape if she eventually enjoyed it and thought about it often while masturbating.

We can see where this erotic story is going by this point, but the early set-up didn’t make me want to stop reading. I am a huge Nancy Friday fan, so, the darker side to women’s sexuality interests me very much ... and on that note, I am just going to come right out and say it: This is a rape fantasy story. You have been warned, but before you throw your arms up in the air in outrage screaming “torture porn” or “books like this demean women and send the wrong message” please stop for a moment. When you label like that you ignore the deep-seated psychology behind the metaphor and in so doing you diminish the catharsis readers might obtain by confronting the conflicted emotional struggle that comes with kidnap, brainwashing, rape, and torture behind the safety net of a fictional story. Fiction is a way to reconcile how we feel about certain taboos, and it’s perfectly healthy and normal to want to confront the dark side. Otherwise, horror movies and fiction would not be so popular. It’s a way for us to explore our own psychological conflicts without the threat of real damage to our person or our psyche. Women who write and read these types of stories do not want to be kidnapped, brainwashed, raped, and tortured, even women who are into sado-masochistic sexual practices don’t want that.

Now that that is out of the way, we can talk more about the psycho-sexual and the sociological aspects of the story, specifically from a woman’s standpoint, understanding that the rape fantasy is not exclusive to women by any means. Men also have this fantasy regularly: the one where they are kidnapped and turned into a sex slave by some Amazonian knock-out with a Barbie body and a leather whip, so let’s not forget that. However, the fantasy for women digs in deep. Women, as far back as history allows us to go, have been repressed and oppressed in all areas of life, specifically our sexuality. Social morays and religious dogma have dictated and defined womanhood down to what is acceptable for us to wear, how we must behave -- sexually or otherwise -- how we must articulate our thoughts, what jobs we are allowed to have without fear of ridicule ... the list goes on an on. It wasn't long ago that women were considered property -- a slave to their husband -- and in some cultures this is still true today. Women bear the weight of so much guilt and shame; it’s amazing we can function at all in today’s society. We feel guilty for being intelligent, for having ambition, for being sexually self-aware, for being independent, for not wanting to get married, for not wanting to have children, for being too pretty, for not being pretty enough, and for basically seeking equality in all things. We constantly have to work harder and harder to leap over the double standard that in this modern day and age is still imposed upon us. And to top it off, we have to live in fear, because we are told we are the weaker sex. You think this prejudice still doesn’t exist, think again.

So my dear readers, the rape fantasy has nothing to do with men being violent or women secretly wanting it. Our kidnapper here is never expressly violent. It doesn’t have anything really to do with sex at all. It has everything to do with feeling a release from guilt, and in this story, it is very nicely explored, right down the religious imagery. It’s about acceptance and freedom from repression. Our Male lead is also oppressed and repressed, but I will get to that later.

Our victim is a successful independent woman who was raised with the traditional Christian upbringing. She has some unexplored sexual proclivities discovered in her youth that she feels ashamed of. Our Kidnapper and Sexual Sadist is a handicapped man suffering from a debilitating lack of self-esteem when it comes to social interaction with women. Both are classic stereotypes of the sexually repressed. However, sexual repression is no excuse to violate moral and legal codes of ethics. Kidnapping and sexual torture in the modern world would have our young man here staring down a very long prison sentence. But this book is not about what is right and what is wrong. It’s a sexual fantasy, and only in the fantasy world can we explore the felony/love affair paradigm shift. This scenario is well studied -- Stockholm Syndrome -- and has become sort of a cliché in the dark-fic genre. In this case, the book is aptly titled. It reminded me slightly of The Story of O and others of its ilk. The only difference being is that our Emily Vargas is a victim here. She is put into a situation without her consent. Doesn’t matter if the torture techniques free her spirit and heal his wounds: It’s non-con, so readers need to be aware of that going in. This is a story about total submission. Even with the Happily Ever After ending, some readers might find the scenario and the graphic sex scenes to be a bit much. It’s not as freakishly graphic or repetitive as Anne Rice’s Beauty series, but the psychological feel is much the same. The reader will feel as conflicted as Emily does.

As for me, I found it to be a truly compelling story on so many levels, specifically as we experience the victim’s point of view upon discovering that her family had given up hope of finding her. That to me was more telling than her psycho/sexual rebirth. On the surface, the book appears to be about power and control, but in reality, acceptance is the primary theme here, eloquently explored through the horror of obsessive need. Both our victim and our persecutor suffer from Social Stigmata, and so to experience their liberation from their own personal dogma through sexualized violence was moving to say the least. The surrender in this story is entirely mutual.

With regard to the technical stuff: In the ARC I received, there were pervasive editorial issues, enough to be annoying to some readers, enough to reduce the review score, but nothing a good proof-reader couldn’t catch. The author informed me that another revision of the work was still to come. The story could have easily garnered an 8/10, but the copy I received wasn't quite ready yet. I liked the cover, but didn’t much like the floating soup bowl and felt it rendered the title too literal. As for the story, the plotline was plausible, there are enough interesting angles and plot twists, the psychology was definitely authentic and well researched, and the use of POV to imply detachment and distance was quite well done. There were only two plot points that thrust me out of the story: the graveyard scene, which the author told me she reworked to correct the implausibility, and the fact that our Felony-Rapist/Kidnapper came off like Bruce Wayne in Batman. Aside from those minor issues, I found the story to be frighteningly sexy. That’s one of the brilliant things about transgressive fiction: It allows us to go where we can’t and understand what we won’t. I hope to read more from this author.


This book was reviewed from a promotional PDF supplied by the author.

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