According to the author's introduction, this novel is loosely based on a book she read at a formative age:
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention William Bayer, author of the great psychosexual thriller Punish Me with Kisses. I read that book in eighth grade, out loud, to my new classmates at Payette Junior High, in Payette, Idaho. The kids loved my little dime store novel, so much so that Mr. Nelson, our generally laid-back English teacher, had me and the book removed from class . . Ever since I read Punish in the early '80s, I dreamed of a lesbian revisioning--and thankfully I got the chance here, with Punishment with Kisses. There is very little in common with the original but inspiration, born from my hormone-fueled adolescent fantasies and Bayer's warped words.
A hellish-red sketch of a babe in a black bikini graces the front cover of this paperback, while a glamorous photo of the author (in red lipstick and red dress with cleavage) graces the back. Before reading the book, I expected it to be beach fare: a mildly entertaining, disposable read.
I was surprised to find myself caring about the characters and caught up in the murder mystery while enjoying the sex scenes and the good-natured satire. There are a few stock elements here that stretch a reader's willingness to believe: the rich, dysfunctional family on an isolated estate (in the wilds of Oregon), the two sets of diaries (one censored, one "real") and the remarkable number of attractive lesbians in a small cast of characters. But then, the story is clearly defined as a romance and a lesbian fantasy, so the implication that every woman is at least potentially a woman-lover and a magnet for other women is predictable.
Despite the genesis of the novel as something close to fanfic (a revisioning of someone else's characters), there is a certain core of authenticity here, and a witty sprinkling of references to contemporary lesbian culture. The author is clearly familiar with “The L-Word,” the first lesbian soap opera to appear on prime-time television; at least one character from that series (set in the lesbian community of Los Angeles) seems to have traveled north up the Pacific coast to serve as a suspect and general object of lust in this novel. (Who, you ask? Shane, of course, the ultimate biker-dyke.)
A realistically complicated relationship between two sisters is at the heart of the story. In the opening chapter, Megan Caulfield has just graduated from university in New Orleans with a vague intention of becoming a writer. She has little work experience, but she can't claim her inheritance until she turns 23, which is several months away. She returns to the family manor, where her older sister Ashley seems to be deliberately provoking their conservative father to shut down her endless pool-party with other good-time girls. Megan resents living in Ashley's shadow. She also resents Tabitha, the young woman her father married after the death of the sisters' mother when Megan was entering high school. The apparent closeness between Tabitha and Ash (suggesting the results of a fire), as she likes to be called, seems like the last straw to Megan.
Alone in her room, Megan watches her sister and reads fiction by contemporary lesbians: Michelle Tea, Jewelle Gomez and Dorothy Allison, all known for their autobiographical work. They are Megan’s idols. She thinks her life-experience has been inadequate:
That summer I came home, I wasn't a virgin, but I certainly wasn't the woman around town my sister Ash was. I'd spent most of college with my nose in a book, save for those few nights with Terra Moscowitz, which began innocently enough with us in her dorm room dry humping each other after a Take Back the Night rally that devolved into so much more. I'm not sure what it was about anti-rape rallies, but they certainly seemed to make Terra horny. Sadly, her girlfriend was around half the time, which meant I got leftover, hand-me-down sex--but I was happy to have it.
This passage looks like a parody of an earnest lesbian-awakening scene as well as a literal illustration of the 1970s slogan, “Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.” Terra even suggests Joan Rivers’ fictional character Heidi Abramowitz, a spoiled slut who arouses other women’s envy and resentment.
Megan feels terribly alone. She would like to feel close to Ash, as she did in their youth, but Ash seems unbearably patronizing to her “kid sister.” As Megan and the reader both learn too late, appearances are deceptive.
Banished to the “pool house” away from the rest of the family, Ash is murdered one night. Seeing her sister covered in blood, Megan is overwhelmed with grief, regret and determination to find out who, how and why.
Megan realizes that she must leave the family home to rejoin civilization (the city of Portland), find a job, begin functioning as an adult, and learn as much as she can about her sister’s life in order to bring her killer to justice. Megan has already ventured out to a lesbian bar in the city where the irresistible Shane was waiting for her. However, Megan must wade much deeper into sexual variety and her own sexual nature in order to understand her sister’s life and death.
Luckily, Ash was more literary than Megan ever guessed, and she left voluminous journals behind. One set of diaries is meant to be found – and the information in it is shocking enough. Another diary, which contains the burning secret at the heart of the mystery, is hidden in a place that Megan remembers from her childhood adventures with Ash.
In her quest for truth, Megan matures and learns to defy her father’s authority, which has always been backed up by the threat of financial deprivation. She finds work as a journalist, and discovers her writing voice while her sister’s diaries lead her into a world of sex clubs, BDSM and porn films.
Meanwhile, Shane weaves in and out of Megan’s life in a way that is crazy-making for the reader as well as for Megan. Was Shane involved in Ash’s murder? Why does Shane work so hard to win Megan over, then cool off so fast? Shane’s role in Ash’s life and Megan’s feelings about her become clearer as Megan finds more pieces of the puzzle.
In due course, the murder mystery is resolved, and Megan emerges as a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. Her sexual odyssey seems to be a temporary phase that she outgrows, yet it also seems like a necessary part of her coming-of-age process. The significance of BDSM as self-chosen punishment, as revenge, as a means of keeping lust and joie de vivre alive, as enlightenment or dangerous quicksand is never clear enough – or perhaps the author finds the subject too diverse to show from only one angle.
Although the sexual value system underlying the plot is as murky as the atmosphere of a dimly-lit club, the plot itself is fast-paced and well thought-out. This is a book I plan to keep.
[Editor’s note: Punishment With Kisses is a 2009 Lambda Literary Awards Finalist in Lesbian Erotica.]