Bad boys are a staple of fiction. The slightly broken guy who is on the shadier side of society evokes something in the reader that is titillating. He’s dangerous. He’s wild. He’s got smouldering good looks and isn’t afraid to do things that aren’t done in polite society. He’s the one the heroine starts to think about while she touches herself, wondering if a man who isn’t necessarily good for her would be good to be with.
When I’m reading, the most successful “bad boys” are the ones who are on the wrong side of the tracks (or the law, or society in general) because they’ve had no choice. Their reputation isn’t wrong – it’s just the result of taking a bad option from a list of poor choices. The scoundrel isn’t all bad, there’s a redemptive element to him, and when push comes to shove, the realization of this knight in slightly-tarnished-armor comes with a bit of relief. You want to like him, and now you have a reason.
In Coercion, I couldn’t quite find that sense for Michael. He’s spoiled, petulant, dates a girl who is equally spoiled and petulant, and has a kind of hot-and-cold desire for the heroine of the tale, Valerie, whom he basically treats as a throw-away sexual release valve whenever he and his girlfriend are on the outs.
Valerie herself is a woman who was once chubby but has slimmed and toned herself with diet and exercise, and is suddenly attractive and desirable to men – but her proper ways and virginal inexperience seem to put off the guys around her – or she just doesn’t really notice they’re looking. Except for Michael, who definitely notices her and fingers her in a parking lot when he’s struggling with his girlfriend – and then doesn’t speak to Valerie for weeks.
Valerie is an apparently smart and gentle sort. Her desire for Michael is something even she admits to herself is foolish, and yet she falls into the traps of the low self-esteem. She wonders if he’d like her if she were as thin as his girlfriend, for example, and although I understand the allure of the handsome rake, by that point I was starting to get annoyed with her. Yes, I’ve been attracted to people I shouldn’t be. Who hasn’t? And especially in college – the setting for Coercion – the raging hormones are flying in all directions, but I wanted to slap Valerie. This guy has spoken to you twice all year – both times fingering you and then leaving immediately thereafter, by the way – and he drops you like a rock whenever his girlfriend pays attention to him. And you’re pining after him? Grow a spine.
Instead, Valerie allows herself to be used by Michael more and more. I wanted to enjoy the erotic prose – which is well written, well crafted, and builds at a surprisingly slow pace throughout the novel, nudging Valerie into deeper territory – but I just couldn’t get past disliking Michael thoroughly and getting annoyed at Valerie’s inability to realize what a cad Michael was. When she does realize he’s a jerk, she’s helpless to her desire, her body reacting regardless and her mind unable to turn away from Michael’s touch. Which, okay, it’s an erotic story but it just goes to underline Valerie’s hopelessness and lack of conviction or strength.
By the time Valerie gathers some self-worth, it was on the edge of being too late for me. If I hadn’t been reviewing the book, I’m not sure I would have made it past Michael’s request that she go ask her friend to join in – which she does, though mercifully her friend reacts like a sane woman given how Michael has treated Valerie from step one.
I should mention that at no point is Coercion written poorly. The writing is good, the descriptions do well to evoke the time period of the piece, and the characters – for all that I found them unlikeable – are consistent. This is not a badly written story, which is part of the confusion for me. The zero empathy factor I had for the characters shot me down.I’m not sure where Coercion was intending to lead me. I think it was aiming to be a “coming of age” for Valerie, but it felt like it took her too long to get a clue. It very likely could be that this just wasn’t the right kind of story for me by virtue of the characters. Valerie’s weakness left me so frustrated, and Michael just seemed without redemption. Michael’s girlfriend seemed like a female version of Michael, and I just found myself caring for almost no one in the tale, with the exception of the one nice guy who seems to like Valerie, but he barely blips on the radar throughout the story. The story is saved by its ending somewhat, which I won’t ruin, but overall Coercion left me more angry than titillated.