As an ardent McKenna fan, I’ve been doing some hard time myself waiting for the release of this penitentiary librarian and prisoner story.
The story begins with twenty-something heroine, Annie Goodhouse, filled with quite understandable trepidation as she prepares to visit Cousins Correctional Facility for the first time, armed with a list of dress rules (no makeup, no jewelry, no perfume, no tight or revealing clothing) she’s to adhere to as the new visiting librarian and literacy tutor.
Southern girl Annie feels this is akin to being asked to shave her head, but is realistic about not drawing attention:
I could guess what my Grandma might say. You look like a runner up in the Little Miss Frumpy Pageant. For God’s sake, at least put some lipstick on. You might meet the right boy. Not today I wouldn’t. Frumpy would do me just fine, given that the male attention up for grabs belonged to several hundred convicted felons.
I shivered, wondering what kind of punishment-glutton dingbat would need to be told not to dress sexy when she visited a maximum-security prison. Play with fire, I thought. Enjoy your third degree burns. Bad men didn’t take much baiting.
It’s here that we learn that Annie is not exactly keen to meet anyone as she’s still in the grip of an extended sexual and relationship hiatus courtesy of the abusive ex-boyfriend who drove her away from her home and left her questioning her judgment about men.
Annie’s fashion concerns vanish once she arrives at Cousins and is pummeled by harsher realities, including a strip search, a long list of regulations, signing a waiver and being handed a panic button.
I was won over by the detail the author presented in the opening chapters about the institutional setting. For some reason, despite the fact that I’d read about prison libraries before, I hadn’t imagined that the librarians would be subject to the invasive security procedures she described, though they made perfect sense once I thought about it.
The reader then follows Annie into the prison where she’s eyed off by inmates and given her first taste of big house intimidation. Just as she did with the psychiatric unit setting of After Hours, the author allows the inmates of Cousins their humanity, while avoiding idealizing them. Kathy, Annie’s librarian colleague and former prison librarian, sums up the inmates and their situation best in a conversation with Annie.
“What are they like? The inmates?”
She shrugged. “They’re a bunch of men who made dumb-shit violent mistakes. Stripped of their dignity, crowded into kennels to cross-infect each other with their anger. And to fester. And to wish they hadn’t made such dumb-shit mistakes.”
Annie is somewhat rattled by the trash-talk and attention of the inmates, but even more so by the impression one particular inmate makes on her.
One inmate stood out among the group, even sitting down. Stood out in his stillness and focus, even as a buddy elbowed him in the arm. My pounding heart went still, eerie as birds fallen silent in the wake of a gunshot.
It’s here that the indelible signature of distrust her last relationship has left her with comes into play, immediately making her wary of her interest in Eric Collier.
Annie is an interesting character. Though uneasy with the inmates and the setting she perseveres because she’s passionate about her job and convinced that the inmates deserve a second chance. She also ignores her misgivings about her physical attraction to Eric to help him with his dysgraphia (problem with writing). She gives him an old word processor and exercises, and it’s with this machine and his ‘remedial’ writing exercises that he begins to pen love letters to her. To gain her ‘consent’ to the letters, he asks her to wear a certain color clothing when visiting Cousins as a sign that he can write to her again. And thus begins an exchange of some very passionate love letters, in which both Annie and Eric bare their hearts to one another in ways they’ve never done before.
I’m not usually a fan of letters in stories, but the letters between Eric and Annie are both intelligent and passionate, and provide a lot of insight into both characters, particularly Eric, who’s revealed as hardened but not bitter, and a man with the soul of a poet despite his educational disadvantage. Plus there’s plenty of tension as the reader, along with Annie, is unsure whether Eric is playing her or not.
All Annie knows for sure is that she’s taking a risk, a very big risk, trading letters with Eric, but she finds herself compelled to respond as she awakens from her five-year drought of sexual desire.
The idiotic risks people take in the midst of affairs made sense to me, suddenly. Nothing felt as good as this wanting. Logic was impotent. Flaccid. A pitiful, powerless thing.
Plus, Eric’s incarceration provides her with a sense of security. Even if she’s lost her head and is recklessly trading written sexual fantasies with another ‘bad man’ who may potentially disappoint her, their inability to be together physically provides a safety buffer that reassures her.
This safety buffer vanishes when Eric suddenly gains early parole, something he never expected due to his ongoing lack of remorse for his assault on another man. This lack of remorse on Eric’s part is an important aspect in the remainder of the story as Annie feels there can be no relationship between her and Eric, even once he’s free, unless she can be confident that he won’t re-offend. His refusal to rule out physical violence when it comes to protecting his family also bothers her on a personal level, having been the recipient of her ex-boyfriend’s violence.
In the process of working out their issues after Eric’s release, plenty of McKenna’s trademark hot sex ensues and readers get to know Eric better. Once out of prison, it’s clear that Eric falls flush into the working class hottie category that McKenna writes so well, an appealing blend of manliness, humility and desire to please the woman he considers too good for him.
Finally, my favorite thing about this book, and all of McKenna’s books, is her precise use of fresh, original language, humor and small details. For example, the way she describes one correctional officer:
His mustache was steely gray, trimmed to the textbook profile of the top half of a hamburger bun. I will not be fucked with, that mustache told the world.
And her thoughts on wearing a red dress for Eric:
It’s not all red. I’m not a total whore. Just a partial one. Just a splash of whore.