Recently graduated, James appears to have it all. He’s smart, he’s good-looking and, under the guidance of his tutor, Professor Thomas, he’s discovered an algorithm that has made him a multi-millionaire. But James’s emotional life is a mess. Throughout college, he and his girlfriend, Amee, have engaged in a lot of sexual experimentation, which has led him to discover two things. One, he’s bisexual, and two, he’s hopelessly in love with Professor Thomas. In an effort to come to terms with his feelings, he travels to Amsterdam, where all kinds of sexualities are tolerated and attitudes are less judgemental than in his native United States. But still he remains confused – torn between doing what’s expected of him and acting on his true desires.
Torn is that rare thing in erotic fiction – a novella that takes an honest and intense look at what it means to be bisexual. James butts up against negative beliefs about bisexuality right from the start of the book. His parents are separated and his father is dating a woman, Claire, who wants all three of his children to be ‘normal’ – in other words, heterosexual. She believes if you’re gay, you haven’t chosen your sexuality, but if you’re bisexual you have the choice to be gay or straight, and if you don’t, you’re just greedy. (A view expressed, coincidentally, by the loveably grotesque Linda La Hughes (Kathy Burke), in the fabulous sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme.) It’s a view that leaves James feeling as if he’s doing something wrong in desiring both Amee and the men with whom he plays around, and it reflects a problem bisexual people often have, not fitting into some easily definable category.
I was eager to read Torn because I’m a sucker for anything set in Amsterdam, though in truth the city doesn’t play much of a part in the story – it simply serves to present a different attitude to sex than the one James is used to. In Amsterdam, James can visit sex clubs and make his desire for a bisexual threesome explicit – and, this being a romance, he might also be able to have the encounter he’s been longing for throughout the book.
Torn is not your standard MM romance. It’s one for lovers of literary erotica, and it features straight sex, threesomes, domination and submission play and much more. Running parallel to James’s discovery of his bisexuality is Amee’s growing acceptance that she has a dominant side. With the aid of a D/s couple she and James meet, she explores her dominatrix persona, Alexa, inviting men to worship them and punishing them for their failings. The sex scenes are vividly described, as Barrett explores the motivations of the many people James meets along the way – from Ryan, the supposedly typical jock who joins him and Amee for a threesome and knows that James wants to have sex with a man even before James really knows it himself, to Max and Iris, the couple who help Amee become Alexa. Barrett has a knack for making even minor characters feel rounded and realistic – even though some, like Claire, are designed purely to put forward a certain point of view, they don’t feel like the cardboard cut-out bigots who infest too much LGBT fiction.
If you don’t want a predictable tale of MM love and you’re interested in what makes people tick in and out of the bedroom, give Torn a try. Based on what happens in the story, I’m certainly keen to read more by E.B. Barrett.
(I was given a copy of this book by Indigo Marketing in return for an honest review.)