In her novel Love, Only Better, Paulette Stout sets out to tell a story that not only entertains, but opens up a conversation about women and our sex lives. By creating a fictional account loosely based on her personal experience, Stout attempts to give readers a story which creates questions and opens up a dialogue about orgasms and the quality of our sexual experiences. This is not your typical casual conversation for many of us, never mind the nuanced conversations needed to help women whose only knowledge comes from purple prose and porn depicting orgasms as earth-shattering, mind-blowing waves of ecstasy.
Stout gives us Rebecca, a protagonist whose every relationship has ended because of her inability to orgasm. Her self-esteem is already at an all-time low when she is cast aside by her boyfriend Ethan:
It wasn’t as if the words were unexpected. Hell, Rebecca said them to herself a thousand times over. Only this was different. Hearing [Ethan] say them—someone she loved. Someone who shared her life and her bed for three years—somehow made them true. …
Frigid. Ice queen.
Who calls someone they love an ice queen?
Rebecca struggles to see herself as whole in all walks of life. She’s the harshest critic of herself, and she can’t see past her own inability to orgasm. She is blinded to the fact she has friends who love her and coworkers who admire her, and none of them totally understand why her failure to orgasm is crippling her. Everything wrong about Rebecca’s life is caught up in this physical inability. Or is it physical?
Rebecca’s desperate longing to have an orgasm leads her to some suspect therapies. Her gynecologist assures her that her body is in perfect shape. He refers her to a research study where she’s put into a darkened room in front of a video camera while faceless doctors ask her questions about her methods. Does she fantasize? Use vibrators? Watch porn? She’s given assignments that do nothing to solve her problem. It’s creepy as fuck, actually.
Rebecca’s eyes darted toward her escape route, but she instead followed the doctor down the hall into a large, chilly room draped in darkness. There was one empty chair on a platform, illuminated with a spotlight. Rebecca froze.
‘Please sit down, Miss Sloan,’ Dr. Costas said, motioning her to the featured seat before disappearing out of sight.
‘You want me to sit up there?
‘Yes, up in the light.’
The beam buzzed with a dangerous energy. Rebecca strained to see something, anything, to focus on. Murmuring forms emerged from the shadows, distinguishable from the darker background behind. Why were other people here? An audience? Papers shuffled. A pen dropped, and a deep voice—a male– expelled a breathy grunt while retrieving it. Rebecca’s arm tightened around her bag.
My skeptical self wondered if this study was part of the fiction of the novel. On her website, Stout assures us this is one of the things she wrote about that she really experienced. Still finding this hard to believe, I asked my psychologist mother-in-law whether these kinds of studies exist, and she assured me they do. Stout’s depictions of these moments are intense and visceral––squirm-inducing, and not in a good way.
When Rebecca meets Kyle, a textbook romantic leading male complete with a motorcycle to rev her up, she decides there’s no way she’s going to have sex with him until she’s sure she can have an orgasm. She doesn’t want to lose Kyle because of her self-perceived inadequacies in bed. This leads her to more online research, a troubling, stalker-like moment, and additional revelatory therapy.
Stout reveals awkward moments with a good deal of humor which balances out Rebecca’s low self-esteem. Rebecca has just handed the clerk at the post office a delivery notification: “Then, Rebecca had a panicked thought. The packaging. Would it be a plain brown wrapper, or would it have MASTURBATION VIDEO AND VIBRATOR plastered across the label? Or worse yet, be the photographed carton with a shipping label slapped on. How could she walk through the streets with that? Why hadn’t she thought to bring a bag?”
Overall, Love, Only Better is entertaining, but it suffers somewhat from not being sure what kind of book it wants to be. Stout admits to not having a clear answer for which shelf her book belongs on. Women’s fiction? Romance? Sort of both? There’s a traditional meet-cute between Rebecca and Kyle, he’s chiseled and charming, and he owns a motorcycle –all of which are enjoyable and hit classic romance tropes. But ultimately, Rebecca’s journey to self-realization is more moving and more interesting than her relationship with Kyle. The deeper issues she has with her low self-esteem and sexual inadequacy are more serious than those we see in most romance novels. Rebecca’s personal story is detracted from by trying to wedge Kyle into the narrative. Rebecca coming (cough, cough) into her own sexual maturity for herself, and not for the sake of a new boyfriend, would have been enough.