“Dancing Backward” by Thomas Lavalle

The glut of books currently on the market about naive young ingenues being introduced to the pleasures of being stalked, controlled, tied up, and flogged is fascinating and, I argue, not without a strong feminist/pro-female element (stay tuned for more thoughts on that, or check out my reviews of Sophia Scarlet’s Absolution series), but some of us can’t help but think that, faced with the insufferable smirking of these strutting heroes (I’m looking at you, Edward and Christian!), any self-respecting woman’s first impulse would be, not to melt into a puddle of sexual pleasure, but to grab the little twerp by the scruff of his arrogant little neck, throw him over her knee, and…

But I digress. What I meant to say is that the basic thrust (hehe) of these books is of an (often insecure) woman who finds strength, self-control, and empowerment through sexual submission. Which is fine, except that the gender roles never seem to be reversed. Even in what in my humble opinion is the absolute pinnacle feminist BDSM-tinged literature, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, pretty much all the “good” women who engage in that sort of thing are submissive masochists. Which again is fine. Except that the only really “good” dominant characters are male, and, and, and…

And so I was thrilled to stumble upon this little gem of a book about a couple in which the naturally take-charge, dominant character is the wife. Successful, “bossy” career woman Kelly has an arrangement with her shy, unambitious husband Chris: she makes the money, and he keeps the house. Only he’s been slacking off more and more of late: instead of cooking and cleaning, or keeping up his art skills and looking for a job as a graphic designer, he’s been watching tv and not taking care of Kelly. When he forgets to pick up her at the airport one evening, she decides that she’s had enough–actually, they both decide that something has gone wrong with his behavior–and starts training him to become her devoted, completely submissive slave.

I can’t say that this is high-style literature, but it is well done for what it is. The narrative switches back and forth between Chris and Kelly’s points of view in a very effective fashion, with the focus on their mental states. Chris and Kelly are crazy about each other but still dissatisfied with how things are currently going between them: both of them are aware that Chris is wasting his potential as an artist and failing in his duties as a househusband, and that he needs direction in his life and (quite literally, as it turns out) a kick in the pants. Kelly, who has always been controlling but in a maternal, loving way, is both disturbed and thrilled by how exciting she finds acting out her sadistic impulses. She’s also conflicted by the effects of her treatment on Chris: she loves his total submission but can’t help find some of his behavior infantile and a touch…unmanly. Chris, meanwhile, is even more conflicted: he can’t imagine his life without Kelly and he knows he needs her (or someone’s) discipline to help get his life in order, but he’s shocked by her cruelty and ashamed of his own spinelessness. He dreams of being a gallant Knight serving his Lady, not a cringing slave sobbing at the feet of a cruel mistress, but he can’t seem to pull himself together enough to make that happen.

This is not a long book (it breaks off at a most exciting moment, with promises of a conclusion to come), but it manages to present the complex dynamic between two characters in an unconventional (or IS it????) relationship with humor and sympathy. Readers should know that it focuses more on the psychology of the relationship rather than the sex, but the punishment/sex scenes are not for the super-squeamish. However, if you’re looking for a book with a man’s take on male submission (the author is a man), this is a great choice.

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