Before I begin my review of Lilah E. Noir’s novel Unorthodox Therapy, allow me a brief but related digression:
When I first read the most basic premise of her book—that a rigorous BDSM training program is used to cure a nasty smoking addiction—I was at first reminded of an old film starring James Woods (homophobic a-hole that he has turned out to be), in which he hires a very shady, mafia-like company that promises to help him stop his smoking habit. Their method involved some invasive surveillance, and a series of increasingly severe (non-erotic) punishments for relapses, until after several attempts to sneak a cig he is finally brought to their headquarters and tied into a chair in front of a brightly lit glass chamber with a metal floor.
Inside that glass cube was his attractive wife, wearing a lovely sundress and looking confused and frightened. At a signal, the metal floor of the chamber was electrified. Woods’ character was horrified as he watched his wife, who had no knowledge of what was going on, as she struggled to stay off the floor, which was of course impossible. She frantically jumped and stepped high, and could only scream every time she landed, which gravity demanded she do. There was nothing to hold onto, no one explaining why this was happening to her.
The scene was certainly not “erotic” in any kind of consensual way; it was torture, though not one leaving permanent damage. Yet the display of her ordeal, the watching audience, the loveliness of the wife and her dress and her bare feet, the helplessness of her screams, and the fact that he had put her there—well, some of us might not be able to help but find the scene one of the most dark and delicious examples of predicament bondage, consensual or not, to cross the screens of our TVs at a young age.
Woods’ character pleaded for it to stop, promised that this time he would never smoke again. I have no idea whether he did or not, nor how the film ended, nor even what it was called. But I’ve always remembered that one scene, the only one in the film I can recall, to be so deliciously cruel.
Unorthodox Therapy shares nothing with that film, other than being a roundabout anti-smoking tale, and also that it too can be deliciously cruel. Which, I hope you know, is a compliment.
I’ve stated before that I’ve never really been as interested in “BDSM Romance” as I am straight-up kinky erotica. But I’ve also said that the two obviously overlap, and that the lines between love and sex—and in the realm of kink, cruelty—can be quite blurry. Even the classics of BDSM erotica have some kind of romantic aspect to them, the craving of one particular person, not just any ol’ body to whip or be whipped by.
What usually bores me about BDSM Romance is that so many authors in this recent wave of post-50 Shades, self-published erotic romance follow the same tired tropes, over and over and over: the billionaire sweeping the innocent off her feet; the bad boy (also usually a billionaire) who has the heart of gold if only the heroine can reach through his dark shell and show him the way through their mutual interest in binding and whipping; the bad-boy billionaire who…
You know what I’m talking about.
One of the most refreshing and notable things about Unorthodox Therapy—which Noir states is not a romance, though it certainly leans that way—is that her goal is to subvert and invert many of those tired tropes, while still telling a love story.
There is a difference between a love story and “Romance”—the predictive, often proscriptive formulae and expectations dominating the latter—and Noir’s goal was to give us some serious feelz while directly turning those tropes on their heads, and to give us some hot and kinky and even dark sex along the way.
And that, by the way, is the second thing I like about this novel: Noir’s willingness to go dark—very dark—but more on that later.
Upturned tropes: For starters, the female main character, Lena, is no innocent, inexperienced fragile flower who seems to have never even met a boy. She is a high-powered, in-charge and in-control head of a software company, which she herself founded and built from the ground up. We meet her in full-scale nicotine withdrawal, sweating and shaking and head pounding, all just before a big meeting with a new client. She is neither as in control as we’d been led to believe, nor as she likes to think of herself as being.
Breaking down—just this once, of course—for a cigarette out on the fire escape, she is joined by her employee Thomas, a younger software engineer who she’d hired years ago as an inarticulate but promising programming nerd, but who has recently been getting it together both at work and in his personal life.
He lights her cigarette.
He also invites her to dinner, as they talk, banter, almost flirt. She had recently been noticing his improved clothes, his growing muscles, but she knows dating an employee is an incredibly bad idea. Nevertheless, she decides to take a chance, and goes to his house.
There is chemistry, but there is also resistance. He seems a bit forward, though not in a creepy way. They’ve known each other quite a while, but purely in a professional capacity, boss and employee; almost but not quite friends.
Thomas says he dislikes Lena only when she is going through withdrawal, and she agrees she does as well—but what can she do? Her schedule is too busy, her life too stressful for her attempts to quit to take hold, before giving up yet again.
He tells her he can help, but it will take some commitment. When asked what this miracle cure consists of, he says he cannot tell her, but can show her, and invites her to the basement.
I have to admit I had a little trouble believing this scene, minor spoiler: as she’s heading down, the door slams shut behind her, the lights go out, and Lena is suddenly in complete darkness.
Every woman I know—and every man, for that matter—would have deafening Silence of the Lambs alarm bells going off, if this were to happen in reality, even with someone they know fairly well but not that well. Yet Lena waits with surprising calm, only a bit nervous, as Thomas begins to light candles one at a time until she can see that she’s now inside a fully equipped bondage dungeon. I have to admit, this scene didn’t quite ring true—to not be told first? To be thrust into a dark (yet meticulously clean) basement full of chains, whips, bondage equipment? Perhaps not the most ethical or considerate way to spring it on someone that you’re kinky, even if there is trust between you. However, this scene was not a deal breaker for me.
She listens to his plan despite her suspicions. His method will require her submission, of course, in more ways than one. It’s not a simple matter of smoking resulting in corporal punishment (though there is, happily, a good deal of that).
His plan is twofold: to replace her need for tobacco with a need for dominating and submissive sex, because he suspects she is far kinkier than she lets on. Carrot and stick, as Thomas says.
And he is right about her desires, of course. Which does not ring false, to me—if anything, it is very realistic that Lena is hard-driving in real life, yearning for submission in her fantasies. Unlike in many if not most BDSM novels, sexual submissives are not always so submissive in real life. Far from it—just look at all those corporate bigwigs who hire dominatrices. The fact is, one’s occupation, or temperament to gain that occupation, does not decide your sexual proclivities. This is one of the ways Noir upends contemporary erotica, and it is very refreshing.
By basing the story on this knowledge, Noir also does not give in to another possible trope, though a less common one: this is not a fem-dom novel. Hard-driving Lena is no secret dominatrix. (Not that I have any problem with those novels, either.)
We have here the rarity, in erotic fiction, of a dominant female at work wanting to submit in bed (or the dungeon, more accurately). Although, as in most erotica, this book can be a bit fantastical, I find that premise wonderfully realistic. By that certainly I don’t mean that all powerful career women secretly want to be dominated, but that you just never know by looking, or working with someone, what they really want inside.
Lena is appalled at Thomas’s proposal, but, she has to admit to herself, she is also interested—she gets more and more heated up, despite herself, as they discuss how it will all work. There is some negotiation, Thomas making it clear that he will allow her to safeword out, but otherwise will be in complete control.
And they are off.
The sex is good—very good—in this book, as is the writing. I’ll admit there are one or two chapters that I wish had been revised one more time, or had undergone a bit more thorough beta reading—one in particular feels more like a summary of the day’s events, that I kept waiting to catch up to the current narrative, while in the rest of the chapters she gets us inside both characters’ heads wonderfully well.
I also admire Noir’s willingness to go dark, very dark. This is no fluffy bit of sugarkink, let me tell you, all gentle Tops who caringly explain the whys of their sub’s punishments during endless aftercare.
In one scene Lena, bound and under questioning, tells Thomas of a previous relationship that was brief and abusive, yet it took her a while to end it because part of her craved the degradation that she received before coming to her senses and kicking him out—so desperate for kink that she put up with far more than she should have. And wow, was it degrading—the guy was a total asshole, yet in Lena’s recalling of it she admits she couldn’t help but like parts of it, and neither, quite frankly, could I.
Such is part of Noir’s skill, making things that ought not be exciting sometimes be so. In her Amazon description of the book, she is very careful to say that the non-consensual violence within is not sexual in nature, yet outside of Amazon’s earshot I would beg to differ. This all gets very tricky, doesn’t it?
Thomas has a jealous side; things get extreme and do not necessarily follow the SSC/RACK guidelines that so many readers require. And, especially, in a scene involving another character—a crucial subplot that I will not go into here—she undergoes a terrible event that while not a rape, does have definite sexual overtones. Like the scene in the James Woods film, it is not “eroticized,” is not made titillating…and yet. There is something about a naked woman (or man, for that matter), bound and in imminent peril, that many readers do find quite arousing. Not one of them? Perhaps this book is not for you. Or perhaps you will just see certain scenes differently, which many probably will. I have an otherwise level-headed female friend whose favorite movie turn-on is the torture scene with Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale, naked and bound to a chair—the scene with the rope? While the chapter in Unorthodox Therapy might not be that brutal, those looking for dreamy-eyed slap-and-tickle should be warned.
Without a doubt, such fictional content is not “BDSM,” which does require consent. But that’s not to say that it’s not of a sexual nature, not sadomasochistic; and, quite frankly, not unenjoyable reading. No one would wish themselves in this situation, in real life. But I will say again that it’s fiction. Some will find nothing erotic about such scenes, others will find them (perhaps shamefully) hot. Like a Claire Thompson novel, or Sade for that matter, sometimes we just can’t help our own enjoyment of these things, in ways that we would not publicly admit.
But also like Thompson, Noir shows us the genuine trauma that such events would produce. She does warn us that this is a dark novel in places, and she is right. I’ve always said that the word “fantasy” in “sexual fantasy” is often wrongly taken to mean “I want this to happen”—to absurd conclusions, by those who do not understand kink, especially dub-con erotica. I myself found the book pretty damn hot, and—importantly—nowhere in the novel does Ms. Noir excuse abusive behavior, or fail to call it out as such. She does not gloss it over as “okay,” as acceptable BDSM. The distinction is clear; the reader is free to react to any given scene in any way that they wish.
It is not a perfect novel (but then what is, in erotica?). Although I enjoyed Unorthodox Therapy immensely and recommend it, I could not quite get over what I felt was a flaw in the storytelling, a very common one, though usually found in film and TV: one of the major crises in this story (and the crises are all major!) could so easily have been prevented if the characters had simply talked to each other, as most people would do in real life, rather than jumping to conclusions and reacting dramatically, perhaps overdramatically. I have been thinking about this for a very long time now.
However, in thoroughly considering the nature of this novel, its central themes, I have come to understand why these two characters in particular might behave this way.
Unorthodox Therapy is a novel about addiction. Lena’s addiction to nicotine is the very reason the story exists; it’s not just some annoying habit she has. It’s ruining her life.
Thomas’s grand plan to liberate Lena from her very real slavery to tobacco is to replace it with an addiction to Kink, a play-slavery: to being controlled, humiliated, beaten—all in a good, fun way of course—and to be addicted to him. Because, after all of his previous conquests in the scene, learning the craft and the ethics, he has been yearning for Lena since he first met her, when he was just an awkward boy hoping for a job and met a woman who completely blew him away. And as for Lena—well, his therapy does begin to work its magic. She is hooked on him, as well.
As anyone who’s known or been an addict knows, people react to the potential loss of their treasured substance in illogical, desperate ways. Looking at it through this lens, I can not only forgive what seemed at first like an easy plot device, but I can see it as making perfect sense from the viewpoint of these two characters who have become totally addicted to each other, to their own potential detriment.
And as for that potential detriment, it should be mentioned that Unorthodox Therapy ends in a cliffhanger. I try not to reveal spoilers (and I hope I haven’t in this review), but I’ve always believed it’s only fair to let people know if a novel is part of an ongoing series. I have been unpleasantly surprised before, in thinking that a first installment was a standalone, but I for one look forward to reading this sequel.
Unorthodox Therapy is available on Amazon, and its sequel, Unorthodox Chemistry, is scheduled for release in late 2017.
Lilah E. Noir’s website can be found here.