By L. Marie Adeline
Doubleday Canada, 271 pages, $18
THINK of it as Fifty Shades of Grey with a whiff of maple syrup to it.
Of course, the maple flavour could have been stronger had S.E.C.R.E.T. been set in, say, Transcona rather than New Orleans. But it's very Canadian that writer Lisa Gabriele -- writing under the pseudonym L. Marie Adeline -- acknowledges Canadian writers need to export their talent if they want to make money. And that means setting a book in the U.S.
Gabriele makes no secret of the fact she wrote this book -- and plans to write its sequels -- to make money. Inspired by the roaring financial success British writer E.L. James had with her erotic trilogy, the former CBC writer and producer -- Dragon's Den and The Current -- followed up her two well-received literary novels, The Almost Archer Sisters and Tempting Faith DiNapoli, with four chapters of what she cheerfully calls "filth."
Her publisher tested the waters with the sample at the Frankfurt Book Fair last fall and a bidding frenzy ensued.
So New Orleans it is for main character Cassie, a young widow and veteran of a miserable marriage who has buried the essence of herself beneath sensible shoes and a waitress's apron, spending her evenings alone at the small apartment she shares with her cat in Spinster Hotel.
Serving a table one day, Cassie ends up holding a customer's journal of sexual experiences and through this connection she meets a representative of S.E.C.R.E.T., a matriarchal group that arranges women's fantasies and changes their lives.
Cassie fills out a questionnaire to choose her nine fantasies, nothing too kinky, surprising for a book described as filth. Among her choices: sex with someone famous, being rescued, sex in public, blindfolded sex, being chosen as the princess (a fantasy along the lines of Cinderella's story -- although Cindy didn't have sex in the golden pumpkin coach on her way home from the ball).
Somehow methodically filling out a questionnaire to organize fantasies gives the book a Canadian feel. Plus, all the characters are so very polite.
S.E.C.R.E.T. is quite amusing in places, not outright funny, but with a fun quality. As Cassie's first fantasy unfolds, she is told to remove her underpants while she sits on a stool at a bar, but she rips her thong, which gets stuck as she struggles to remove it without drawing attention. As you know, Canadians are quite amusing people.
Also amusing is the list of questions in the appendix to guide book clubs who discuss S.E.C.R.E.T.
First one: What compelled you to read this book? It's a safe bet it wasn't to discuss the metaphorical implications of the first-person narration.
That's a good thing, because a reader seeking fine, fluid prose will be disappointed. And the plot is entirely predictable, once the structure of the nine fantasies is set.
S.E.C.R.E.T. is fine escapism, not lofty literature, and it has no pretensions to be. It is not a manifesto on women's lives. It's not a political statement. It is not an empowering tool.
Reviewers comparing it to The Handmaid's Tale are fighting an uphill battle. It's a lot of sex with safe, lovable men with yachts, pretty clothes and rich guys in limos thrown in for good measure.
It's a raunchy book with a Canadian feel to it -- and not a canoe in sight.
Julie Carl is the Free Press associate editor, reader engagement.