Dancing with Venus
by Roscoe James
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Blues is Jessica Butler’s life. No performer romances the audience better. Unfortunately the audience is the only thing twenty-eight-year-old Jessie is romancing these days. Her life is an endless string of club dates with the occasional male groupie thrown in to stave off complete isolation. Careful to never surrender more than her body, matters of her heart remain a mystery, even to her.
On the outs with her family, she’s been running from gig to gig for over a year. When her little sister’s wedding invitation finds her in Chicago Jessie realizes it’s time to stop running. Unwittingly she starts a pilgrimage that turns the ever elusive matters of her heart into a train wreck.
Marcella Dionysius keeps company with the dead Europeans. Instead of bars and clubs, Marci’s venues are concert halls and recording studios. She’s a world-class cello player, a woman that loves women, and the only daughter of a very powerful man who wants just one thing before he dies. An heir.
Marci is an exotic Greek goddess next to Jessie’s pale, lanky, Midwestern form, and Jessie hates her sister’s best friend immediately. She hates her even more after their first kiss. Because this time running isn’t an option.
Dancing with Venus is one of those books that based on the first few pages, I expected to have issues with. However, this turned out to be one the better reads of this year not only in writing quality but amazing character depth portrayal that I don’t read too often. Roscoe James captured and created a character in Jessie that crawled under my skin and made a home.
At first I had a hard time with Jessie. She’s jaded to the max, going through life with a huge chip on her shoulder. She’s done whatever she could, to the point of being cruel, to piss her mother off at every turn, and she fucks guys she meets at her gigs just to add a notch to her little “pink” book. There’s something really hard about her, and yet, of course we see further on that it’s a cover up for something painful in her past and some deep vulnerability.
Now typically, I start to roll my eyes at the tortured, self destructive character who has a heart of gold really. It’s so stereotypical and kind of boring. Yet, surprisingly, the author took this to a different level and added some real depth to Jessie as a character.
As the story progresses, Jessie learns things about why she acts like she does that shock even her. Things that she completely blocked and forgotten because they were too painful. I felt this was very realistically portrayed and I thought myself that Jessie really had no idea of those things that were haunting her psyche and causing her to act in self destructive ways.
Marci was more of a catalyst character in this story. She’s not as well developed, but in a way, it doesn’t matter because this is more or less Jessie’s story and her growth. What I liked about Marci is that in contrast to Jessie, she’s very stable about what she feels and knows what she wants. She bee-lines it to Jessie and pushes her way into Jessie’s heart, which is something that obviously Jessie needed. She never wavers, even when Jessie goes in and out with her flakiness about what she wants or feels.
There were times in this story that I felt it could easily go the way of the “oh my god I’m a lesbian,” but it never did even though Jessie does freak at first. Jessie finds herself shocked that she likes being with a woman and does fight it on some level, but it goes deeper than the whole fear of what people will think. It touches a deep nerve inside of her that brings up stuff that have to do with who she really is, her core, her security, relationship with her parents, her childhood and so on. I liked this because so many times an initially non gay character that ends up in a gay situation screams that “oh my god I’m a lesbian” is used more as a cheap way to show inner conflict than as part a complex character issue. So kudos to Mr. James for that.
The next issue that almost derailed this story for me was the push-pull thing that goes on quite often as a conflict device. In this case, Jessie opens up to Marci but then freaks and pulls back. Not once, but twice. When they finally get together again half way through the story and again Marci wants some kind of commitment or declaration and acknowledgment of Jessie’s love, Jessie can quite bring herself to it and again, they go on their separate ways.
I was thinking at that point, ugh, really, I hate this back and forth indecisiveness of characters. But then Mr. James took that and didn’t keep it frustrating, but ran in a different and interesting direction. I think it’s very hard to keep a contemporary love story interesting without a side theme like suspense or some other plot device to keep the characters distracted enough to build up tension. But I will say that the story line went in a direction that did that in a way that was able to showcase Jessie’s internal growth and desperate need to get Marci back without pissing me off.
Instead of a constant back and forth, both go on with their lives, especially Jessie who has a booming personal life outside of her love of Marci. But all the while, she’s trying to find and get back with Marci. This puts the focus on the story back into creating enough tension that I was aching for these two to get together again without getting pissed off by the drama of it. By the time they do meet up again, it’s so clear that Jessie will do anything for that love even sacrificing the other most important thing in her life, her music.
For those who are wondering, there isn’t that much sex in this book. Much of the story takes place with both Jessie and Marci being apart, with just enough scenes of them together to establish what they feel and the crisis they go through to end up together. But I liked this. For once in a long time, sex wasn’t thrown in there to show a relationship between the couple at the expense of character development and plot.
And I wasn’t going to mention this because really, it doesn’t matter the sex of the writer. A good story is a good story and this was a well written story. However, something that struck me here was that Mr. James had more insight into a woman’s character than many of the female writers of the same genre I've read. And I dare say, that Jessie as a character does have an edge and vulnerability to her that made her more real for me than many female protagonists that I read in these types of stories.
So, bottom line, I highly recommend this book. While it does have some issues, and maybe some of the story could have been cut in parts where Marci and Jesse are apart and doing their own thing, I’m still left with thoughts of this book in my head and wanting to continue on with the characters, to see how they made out with their HEA. And I was quite impressed with the writing quality
Heat level: 3- there are some, short, somewhat graphically written sex scenes, but they are few and I didn’t find them over the top but more about expressing what the characters feel for each other.
Grade: B+, A-