Ella has some secrets. Ella isn’t her given name, she hates to talk with her mother. The boyfriend she thought was the one turned suddenly scornful. She hates roses. She doesn’t want to receive oral sex.
Ella counts things. The number of horizontal wires in the screen on the window helps her keep her mind off what bothers her. She counted the marbles in the vase holding one of those decorative, green bamboo shoots.
She’s counted the number of men with whom she’s had sex, well into the hundreds. Most of those men were a single event, one night. Some of them she didn’t even find out their first name. For a while there, sex helped get her mind off what bothers her.
The story opens in a very upscale candy shop, “the kind of place you went to buy expensive imported chocolate truffles for your boss’s wife because you felt guilty for having sex with him when you were both at a conference in Milwaukee.”
Hypothetically speaking, she adds.
In the shop she meets a man. He’s attracted to her. He doesn’t know her name, she doesn’t know his, but he invites her to sample the licorice, suddenly putting a piece in her mouth. They part as though it was just an encounter between strangers. She goes back to work and finds, in the days that follow, she can’t get him out of her mind.
In a book that otherwise fully frames the characters, there was no exploration of why this man caused such a strong response. It was a gap in the narrative that went unresolved.
Ella tells her own story in the first person. She proves to be an unreliable narrator, keeping secrets from her readers as well as from the characters with whom she interacts in the story. Perhaps the unresolved gap was intentional.
By chance, they meet again, he invites her to go immediately to dinner. Ella finds out his name is Dan. They talk over dinner, they find a mutual attraction, and they go to his place. In a role reversal, he considers sex as a signal they intend to continue a relationship, while she intends just the one night.
She has her reasons.
Dan figures out where she works and contacts her there. On the phone, he sounds entirely businesslike, she could have had him on speakerphone without worries. He invites her to lunch at an expensive restaurant to discuss a potential arrangement.
At the restaurant for lunch the two odd things about this story are visible together. Dan basically orders her to meet him in the women’s room for a quickie. Ella, without comment on what makes his spell so effective, simply complies. After putting candy in her mouth, this is the second time Dan has come across as dominant. But most of the time he doesn’t act that way, it just shows up once in a while. It was a relief the story didn’t enter into a dominant relationship, I’d have not been willing to finish it.
In their next few encounters it becomes clear sex is a prominent part of the story, but incidental to a relationship developing for other reasons as well. Sex is part of Ella’s secret. She had deliberately avoided having sex, avoided those anonymous hookups, for three years before meeting Dan. (Ella, always counting, tells Dan the exact number of years, months and days.)
Dan proves to be persistent. She explains she isn’t willing to date men. That is, she wants no developing relationship. She prefers to keep it simple. He asks her out to dinner as a prelude to hooking up, she relents.
Dan sees Ella is sexually adventurous and brings her into new adventures. One evening in a restaurant, they talk over dinner about a three-way and Dan arranges for their waiter to be the third, that night. The scene is reasonably respectful of the woman in the three-way, focusing primarily on her pleasure and comfort – except the two men talk about her in the third person.
There is a side plot about Ella’s relationship with her teen-aged neighbor, Gavin. Gavin prefers Ella’s company, painting the rooms of the house, over the difficulties of living with his stressed, single mother. The mother, suspicious, orders them to stay apart. After a time, Gavin’s attempt at suicide shows just how stressed he has been. When Ella visits him at an inpatient treatment center, he explains he’d noticed the scar on her wrist, and a piece of the secret from her past becomes evident. She and Gavin have a bond, and she advises him from her own experience that he can move on to a complete life even after his suicide attempt.
Her father’s death, bringing together the family as it does, brings us that much closer to her secret being revealed. Ella elects to break up with Dan rather than let him learn more.
In a chapter which might be the denouement to the book, Ella’s old life returns in all its humdrum routine. But Dan reappears, and the first thing he says is he can’t get her out of his mind. They don’t make up, they fight. Ella tells him everything about her past, telling her secret in its entirety. She even tells Dan she lost the first guy who might be the one because she told him everything. She is telling everything to Dan to repulse him as well. The first guy didn’t respond well, but Dan does. Instead of pushing her away, he holds her close.
Ella’s description of the sex scenes seemed to report the same experience over again. The scenario changed each time, but her description of her responses were remarkably similar. It wasn’t clear to me if that was intentional. Perhaps even feeling passion with Dan she was only going through the motions. Perhaps Ella was reporting at some remove from the responses of her body. Perhaps she didn’t approve of the responses of her body.
The core of Ella’s story is how a chain of connected experiences can shape her relationship with practically everybody, and how two strong people can help each other deal with memories. It happens to have dirty parts.