A Guest Pandora’s Box: Erin Nicholas’s Getting Dirty

Hello everyone and welcome to the second of our AAR blog columns. The basic idea is that we’re going to choose a book every month and have a hopefully-not-too-lengthy discussion about it. We’re still Elisabeth Lane (of Cooking Up Romance), a long-time romance reader who now creates recipes inspired by books and then blogs about it, and Alexis Hall (author of, most recently, Waiting for the Flood), relative newcomer to the romance genre and occasional writer. We hope you’ll enjoy reading our thoughts, and we hope you’ll think about reading along with us next month.

This month’s title is Getting Dirty by Erin Nicholas. The third book in her Sapphire Falls series, it features a city girl and a country boy essentially conspiring to drive each other nuts. Sapphire Falls is just the sort of place Lauren loves and Travis is just the sort of farmer she goes for, but she’s terrified of sacrificing her career and her freedom by settling down. So instead she convinces him to help her remember everything she hates about small town life. He fails.

AJH: Y’know, even writing that plot summary makes me kind of want to shout and shake people.

Elisabeth: Ha! I take it you didn’t like this one much.

AJH: Well. It’s probably not a book for me, put it that way. I don’t think it sucks or anything. It’s genuinely engaging, funny and sexy, and there were lots of things that interested me about it and some of the ideas it explored. But … I … yeah, I struggled. How did you find it?

Elisabeth: Frankly, I struggled with it too, which surprised and disappointed me because I’ve read this author before and had high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, the characterization, particularly of Travis, felt wooden to me and I thought the plot was contrived and uninspired.

AJH: It’s kind of … almost Kafka-esque isn’t it? Like the first 60% of the book is this invented scenario that takes place entirely in the heroine’s head as she tries to stop wanting to stop liking things she blatantly likes. I found that really hard to invest in because it felt so bizarre and unreal.

Elisabeth: Well, and she’s a scientist and an entrepreneur and a real smarty-pants, right? But she has this notion of how behavioral conditional works that is…bafflingly wrong? I mean, I know her area is agriculture, not psychology, but she’s 30 years old and very successful? This seemed like the scheme of a much younger, much more naive person. Someone like Travis, in fact. Though he is immediately skeptical of the whole thing.

AJH: I suppose it was meant to be a screwball comedy type set up? Except, yes, you’re right, the goofiness pulled against the essentials of her character and kind of undermined her. Which is a shame because I quite liked her when she wasn’t behaving like Miley Cyrus on LSD.

Elisabeth: It’s even worse when you’ve read the first two books. She’s so sharp and interesting and ambitious. Plus there’s this whole context of the town and female relationships in the other books that weren’t as strong in this one. This close-knit, rather appealing place turned into a caricature of itself.

AJH: I confess, I do naturally pull against idealised depictions of small town life because … well … while I understand the appeal, I also kind of instinctively feel that the sort of communities we’re so desperate to return to or preserve or whatever are communities comprised almost entirely of straight white people reinforcing very typical gender roles. That’s a personal thing, to a degree though. Inherent expectation of exclusion that makes these sort of books, uh, challenging for me.

Elisabeth: That’s an interesting observation. And it’s true that I’m not sure there are any people of color in this book either? Or many of the others, come to think of it? At least, I don’t remember any.

AJH: I wasn’t keeping score, but it felt like a very … homogeneous community, however charming it was supposed to be.

Elisabeth: I guess the only rejoinder I can make is that, well, rural America hasn’t had it particularly easy in recent years. I spend a fair bit of time in rural Virginia because we like to spend time driving around to little towns looking at antiques and hiking and doing the quaint things urban people do when they go to the country. But it’s impossible not to notice just how hard-hit these communities have been economically. And I do find a lot of used romances when I visit them. The difference between those communities and Sapphire Falls is that, yes, it’s a functional community, but it’s also a prosperous one. As much as the hero-heroine relationship is important in books like these, I think the vision of a prosperous small town is just as fulfilling for some readers.

AJH: That makes a lot of sense and I appreciate that there are social and geographical complexities here that I’m just not getting as a limey. I guess I just don’t see why that fantasy of togetherness always involves drawing together very specific types of people. But, at the same time, as you say, it’s very much catering to the ideals and needs of a reader who is not me. And “I wish this was less like it was” is a damnably unfair criticism to make of anything. I suppose, more broadly, I found the book’s relationship with stereotypes a little bit incoherent. Like it couldn’t decide if it was supposed to be challenging them or overturning them.

Elisabeth: Well, I think one reason why this book seemed somewhat incoherent is that it was, I think, trying to answer some of the questions you raise about small town romance. Because Lauren isn’t straight. She’s bisexual. And the author goes to some pains to make the reader aware that this is unfamiliar to people in town, but generally accepted. I think part of what this book suffered from was a little bit of trying to do too much. Trying to portray real, small town people as they are, but also trying to make it clear that they’re more sophisticated than Lauren thinks and cover all this ground of how it’s okay to be content where you are, but also wish for more and want community, but also want adventure and achievement. It’s a little bit dizzying.

AJH: Yes. I actually liked it when the book really got into those ideas and I was very impressed at how it resolved (or didn’t resolve) those complexities. But we’d had 60% of Kiss Me Like It’s Aversion Therapy by then, so there wasn’t really time to get into the good stuff. Or what I perceived to be the good stuff.

Elisabeth: Yes.

AJH: By the way, given that portraying bisexuals in fiction appears to be actually impossible to do well, how did you think Lauren’s bisexuality was handled?

Elisabeth: I don’t think it was handled badly, to be honest. I think the author deliberately tried to avoid stereotypes of bisexuality, but also let the character be herself. She’s a brazen, sexual woman. But not in a way that made it seem like she was out to bang the whole world, which can sometimes happen. But Lauren also seems to feel like the biggest threat to her career and independence is these manly farmer men because she likes them best, which seems to devalue the previous relationships she had with women and the more urban metrosexual type guys she was meeting in Chicago.

AJH: It’s really bloody difficult. I mean it’s not like bisexuality is one thing – it’s not like all bisexuals are attracted to all gender identities equally at all times. And just because Lauren is more attracted to farmer types than women doesn’t make her less bisexual. But, at the same time, because bisexuals don’t get written about enough, I would agree that her romantic and sexual relationships with women felt very slightly devalued. On the other hand, I did like how comfortable Lauren was with her sexuality. More importantly, I also feel demanding a writer portray only politically and socially useful versions of bisexuality is even more problematic than the awkward (and often unsatisfying) ways bisexuality intersects with the expectations and conventions of the romance genre. Not that I’m any sort of judge or expert, but I feel this wasn’t by any means a terrible representation of the impossible fictional bisexual. Just for me, I thought it was brave and I appreciated it. But, you mentioned you found Travis wooden?

Elisabeth: I did. I’ve gotten to the point in my romance reading where I prefer both main characters to be fully formed. Travis felt more like a method of alternately challenging and upholding Lauren’s choices than an actual person. And while that made him a creative accessory to her story, that’s not really what I’m looking for out of romance. Even though he was sexy and supportive, especially at the end.

AJH: I’m less troubled by that, I admit. Obviously I’ve come from romance from various other genres, so actually finding women centralised in a narrative is still an intriguing novelty to me. I’m a fan of Jennifer Crusie for example, which tend to be very much about the heroine, and the hero is a kind of … yes … an accessory, as you say. Though not in a bad way. Within that context, I wasn’t really expecting Travis to have the same nuance and interiority as Lauren. Although I do find romances more romantically compelling if the characters are equally detailed. Mainly I was peeved that there seems to be some kind of rule that you can’t portray a manly man without denigrating less manly men. Like that dude ONLY has shampoo in his bathroom. That is how manly he is.

Elisabeth: Well, let’s talk about how the men in this book act then. Because some of the things they say to each other when women aren’t around made me rather uncomfortable, even as I acknowledged that it was probably realistic. Let me see if I can find an example.

AJH: Is it this? It’s quite a long conversation so here’s the gist:

“I’m just waiting for the perfect chance to show her how wrong she’s been with all of her assumptions,” Travis said. He caught the T-shirt Drew tossed to him in one hand.

“You’re waiting for the perfect chance to make a fool of her,” Tucker clarified [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][…] “Grandma wouldn’t approve of you embarrassing a lady,”

“Grandma wouldn’t approve of Dr. High and Mighty’s attitude either.”

“That’s probably true,” Tucker said of their grandmother. “But you can’t humiliate the good doctor.”

The thing was he probably could. But he wouldn’t. “Nah, I’ll… surprise her.”


“I figured you’d just fuck her and show her who’s best,” Tuck said and then swigged the rest of his water.

Elisabeth: Yes, that’s the scene. Jackie Horne of Romance Novels for Feminists did a post on a similar topic not that long ago where she wondered if men really talk like this when they’re together. Because it feels like stuff no one should say. But my experience being around a lot of guys growing up would suggest that they do. I guess the question is: how realistic do you want to get?

AJH: I think it’s … complicated. I mean, yeah, men say horrible things about women, especially young men who’ve never, y’know, actually noticed that women are human and live in the same world as they do. I move in over-educated liberal circles full of women so I’ve honestly never really been even on the outskirts of this sort of conversation since I moved down south. It makes it kind of easy to forget it’s a thing that really happens. I think what trips me up about scenes like this, though, is that I have trouble working out whether the author is genuinely trying to flag up some of the more subtle and invidious ways rape culture functions – rape culture microaggressions if you will (in the fact these are both nice guys, one of them at least is presented as an object of fantasy and aspiration, yet they’re cheerfully talking about punishing a woman through sex) – OR the writer has decided to present male characters talking this way because it’s supposed to be the way men talk. Does that make sense?

Elisabeth: It does. And I think that from the other attitudes presented in this book –that ambitious, career-oriented women are awesome, that bisexuality is a normal expression of human sexuality–we can guess where she falls. But I don’t think that the text provides any obvious cues that the language these men use here is sub-optimal.

AJH: Yes, it’s difficult. I mean, I don’t think fiction has to automatically be didactic. I know some authors and readers prefer that anything negative is explicitly challenged and shown to be wrong by the text. I’m quite happy for all these complex social intersectionalities to exist as they are, but that particular exchange felt jarring. I think that’s why for me it read like an “oh men talk like this” throwaway. Regardless of the intent or awareness behind it. Travis is definitely not one of those “I will assault you until you get to like it” heroes and everyone keeps going on about how gentle and sweet Tucker is. So it just felt inconsistent to me, rather than … challenging. But I could be reading it ungenerously. As you say, this is how some men talk – even apparently decent ones.

Elisabeth: I think the inconsistency is really the trouble here. As I said, I’d read this author before and this just didn’t feel like the best example of her work. The first book of this series, Getting Out of Hand, featured an uber-nerdy scientist hero and I really don’t recall it being this ambiguous. Actually, it was super charming. Whenever he made out with his heroine, he would get these amazing epiphanies and write chemical formulas on her arms. I was hoping for more of that. Oh well, not every book can be a winner.

AJH: That sounds completely adorbs. I can definitely see things to enjoy about this author’s work. I loved her dialogue and I also really liked Lauren in principle, if not always in practice. I think it was just this book in particular not quite working for me, although I’ve really appreciated talking about it. It’s full of ambition and boldness, even if it doesn’t quite come off.

We hope you’ll join us in the comments for more discussion of Getting Dirty.

And if you want to read-along at home, next month we’ll be looking at: Against the Dark by Carolyn Crane. Thanks,

Elisabeth and Alexis



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03/07/2015 5:18 pm

OK, sorry, this is insanely long & there are side-trips :/ Anyway, Alexis & Elisabeth, as you know, I was reading this book sort of along with the two of you. It wasn’t really a book for me, which I knew going in, so to my complete lack of surprise I struggled with getting through it. I admit I went into this with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I’m not wild about contemporary romance, in general, which I already knew. But when Elisabeth asked if I was planning to read along & I read the blurb, I had such weirdly strong aversion to the idea of reading it that I was kind of like, wow, what the heck is going on with that?! But, instead of deciding NOT to read, I decided to read it, maybe challenge that reaction & figure out what was behind it. So, sorry, only indirectly related to the book, but I did come to a rather startling conclusion. Which is: I think at least part of the reason I react this way is I frequently find the heroines difficult to identify with, yet because they’re contemp I feel I’m supposed to. Like Lauren in this book, they so often seem to be these paragons of the modern, ideal woman: Smart, savvy, cool-under-pressure, personally, professionally & sexually confidant, career-oriented, successful, bold, & so on. And that’s all great, but most of that just *so* isn’t me that I think it’s actually . . . alienating. Plus, of course, incredibly attractive, but that’s sort of a staple of romantic fantasy & is far less off-putting for me than the rest. I guess I just have this sense these women represent some ideal I’m supposed to live up to, or try to or want to live up to. Plus the coupling with romance makes it almost feel like: This is who you have to be to deserve love? Which, obviously, entirely personal & nothing against this book, but it was an interesting epiphany. I think don’t react like this to historical heroines, or heroes in contemp romance, queer or het, because there’s no sense they’re supposed to be me. Or if a het contemp heroine comes across as strong but really vulnerable, then I’m fine too. Lauren just didn’t feel that way, to me. But it does make me wonder, Alexis, (sorry, going further afield) as I know you also typically prefer historical het to contemp. Like, if your preference there is related to anything similar, with regard to either heroes or heroines in het. Like, I could see how male characters who feel heteronormative and/or masculine-normative (?), could be more off-putting in contemporary context . . . Or maybe it really is the frocks ;-) Anyway, sorry, back to the point: Lauren, as a type, was not the kind of heroine I could easily engage with. But I actually liked the way the book started. It was charming & funny & the stuff about the calf was really cute. Though I have to say, I’m nitpickingly annoyed by the name of the town. Sapphire Falls, seriously? It feels fake to me, way too picturesque. I mean, would farmers from way-back-when really give their town a name like this? There*is* Ruby Falls in Tennessee. But, it’s named after a guy’s wife, Ruby, not the precious stone. Also, while still water may appear “sapphire” under some conditions, you can’t convince me waterfalls ever do. Unless they put blue dye in them :P Rushing water does not reflect the sky. *grumbles* Okay, sorry, persnickety rant over. Anyway, charm aside, when Travis appeared & it went downhill for me. I was annoyed by his cowboy shtick overkill & behavior toward Lauren& her finding him so attractive despite it. I hated how they dissed each other & how she dissed the town. I just didn’t take to either of them, so I didn’t really care about their romance. And I thought the premise of help-me-make-myself-not-like-you-or-this-town was silly. Maybe it was intended as “screwball-comedy” as you said, Alexis. Just didn’t work for me. Plus, for me, it was too sex-centric. All the I-hate-you-but-I-want-you, then they have incredible sex &, suddenly it’s all I-love-you. I know they said or thought all the words about other stuff they liked about each other, but I guess I . . . just didn’t quite buy it? And, like, every time he found her endearing, his reaction was just to want to rip her clothes… Read more »

Reply to  Pam/Peejakers
03/08/2015 12:39 pm

Gosh – not quite sure where to start :)

I can definitely see and understand why reading about characters that are supposed to be like you and yet not identifying with them at all can be intensely alienating. I feel the same way about a lot of m/m – and it’s a really unpleasant experience.

I tend to read het precisely to avoid this problem – because there isn’t really any character who is ‘meant’ to explicitly stand in for me in that kind of way, I get to pick and choose my spaces of identification, as well as comfortably discard the ones that don’t work for me. Usually when I read het I kind of have this odd relationships with heroines – as I feel free to identify with them where relevant (after all, identification isn’t – and arguably shouldn’t be – about gender) but at the same time – because they’re not supposed to be me in any way – I also often respond to them … um … objects (oh that is so the wrong word, no sentence with ‘object’ and ‘woman’ in it is okay) of desire. So I liked Lauren a lot – she’s very appealing as a strong, sexy, sexually confident woman.

It might be just the romances I’ve read but there seems to be quite a strong trend towards heroines who are … hmm … who feel quite restricted to me in the traits they have and the ways they behave. Like they can’t be too beautiful or too aggressive or too unsympathetic – and Lauren is kind of unapologetically and uncompromisingly too-everything. So I thought that was interesting.

Although there was actually a section we cut out of the final draft this in which I whinged about Travis – feeling defensive about him in much the same way you feel defensive about Lauren. I felt quite judged by his pure ‘shampoo only’ masculinity. I mean, what the hell is wrong with moisturiser? :P I’m honestly really put off by those kind of heroes … but ultimately I’m not the intended audience of them and I can certainly see the ways their appealing. I mean, Travis *is* very nice as well as being very manly – and the way he adapts to her job, I thought, is really well done.

And while I do see your point about the lack of vulnerability in both of them, I didn’t actually mind it. I mean, not every romance has to be about damaged people smooshing their wounded souls together. I actually found it pretty refreshing to read about two basically okay people who got on quite well and were sexually attracted to each other :)

I’m definitely going to try the first book though – nerdy scientist might not trip so many of my internal resistances.

Reply to  AJH
03/08/2015 1:25 pm

On Lauren, yes, she’s “”everything”” & that’s interesting because I think objectively that’s a good thing, but for me it throws me out of identifying, as I said. Yet if she was a historical heroine, I probably would have found her super-awesome. So strange :/ “”Smooshing their wounds together””, eek! But yes, I know, & I don’t always need that, but I guess, when characters, feel too otherwise “”perfect””, the more intense vulnerability helps offset that, for me.

I’m gonna try the first book too. Nerdy scientist <3! And this time the blurb & sample really appeal to me. Plus it's 99 cents :-)

Dabney Grinnan
Dabney Grinnan
03/07/2015 11:17 am

I think it’s really difficult to get small towns down in modern contemporary romance. Molly O’Keefe does it well as does Cara McKenna. The idealized small town is such a common trope and thus has some people who do that fabulously–Jill Shalvis, Robyn Carr–that usually when others try I find their efforts wanting.

Reply to  Dabney Grinnan
03/07/2015 5:51 pm

Yes, I agree. And I like Cara McKenna & Robyn Carr’s stuff

Reply to  Pam/Peejakers
03/08/2015 12:24 pm

I guess it depends a lot on your perspective and your experiences? I can certainly why you might idealise / take comfort in that kind of small town, small community idyll. Not every reader is a contrary git like me. I also think it probably helps a lot if you’re American because I don’t really have anything to base my imaginings on. I read a lot of Jill Shalvis, though, who seems to render this style of thing more accessible to me.

03/06/2015 9:11 pm

Thanks ladies!

Kari S.
Kari S.
Reply to  LeeB.
03/06/2015 10:19 pm

Umm… Alexis is actually a guy, though I admit that he didn’t say much in this review to make that totally clear.

Welcome to AAR, Alexis! Missed reading you lately.

Reply to  Kari S.
03/08/2015 12:21 pm

Heh, I guess it’d look weird if I started every piece of writing with a Declaration of Gender :)

But thank you for the welcome, I get around places ;)