Now You See Me by Pamela L. Todd
Totally Bound, 2014
Jo Carpenter barely exists. By her own design, she strives for invisibility. Every six months or so, she moves to a new town, rents a new hole-in-the-wall room, and finds a new job where she’ll be paid in cash. Her deliberately prickly personality helps her keep people at arm’s length. Friends are a luxury she can’t afford. Jo sleeps with a baseball bat under her bed and her shoes by the door, ready to flee if necessary, but all her precautions don’t dispel her nightmares.
Edinburgh was supposed to be like all the other cities where she has hidden in plain sight, a brief stop before moving on. When she answers a classified ad for a housemate, though, she finds a stunning luxury home that’s a far cry from her usual basic digs, and meets its even more gorgeous owner.
Nate Harding is licking his wounds after an ugly divorce. He hardly cares who rents his extra floor, as long as the tenant is quiet and responsible. Jo touches something within him, though, soothing his ragged feelings and moderating his cynicism about women. She’s sharp-witted, sincere, self-reliant and unpretentious, a huge contrast to his unfaithful, gold-digging ex Kate. And despite the impropriety of a sexual liaison given their respective roles, Nate finds Jo incredibly attractive.
Jo understands that it’s dangerous to get close to Nate, but she can’t help herself. Although she tries to pretend they’re nothing more than fuck buddies, both of them know their relationship goes well beyond the fabulous sex they share. As Jo grows more intimate with Nate and more integrated into his warm, quirky family, hiding her secret become more and more difficult. The openness that Nate craves, though, will threaten not only Jo’s life but those of the people she has come to love.
Now You See Me is phenomenally good, especially for a first novel. In a genre famous for straining belief, it may be the most realistic romance I’ve ever read. The first person narration puts the reader inside Jo’s head, where we’re party to her scheming, her uncertainty and her barely suppressed terror. The pressure is unrelenting, as she falls more deeply for Nate and fights harder to keep the skeletons from her past under control.
Nate begins as more of a fantasy figure, the tall, dark, dominant, arrogant lord-of-the-manor type that romance readers seem to crave. Cracks soon appear in this facade, though. Jo happens upon him late one night, when he’s drinking away the hurt after a run-in with his demon ex-wife Kate. When Jo tries to console him, he brags:
“You think I’m lonely? You think I have a shortage of women waiting, willing, begging to fill my empty bed?”
I closed my eyes. “Meaningless sex isn’t companionship.”
“Sex with me is never meaningless. Even if it’s only once, it’s not like the women don’t get anything out of it. And you know what? They’re grateful for it.”
Another author would have us taking this at face value – classic alpha male cockiness. Ms. Todd makes it clear that this sort of bravado is indeed a symptom of Nate’s craving for real love and affection – especially when he apologizes profusely the next day.
Jo and Nate have plenty of thrilling erotic encounters, in a wide range of locations including the kitchen island. They don’t fall into bed immediately, though, and even after they do, their relationship develops gradually, another realistic touch I appreciated. Jo is not the sort of person to let down her guard easily. Nate woos her with his tender care and true consideration, as well as his talented tongue and hard cock. In a pleasing turn-about, the male in the couple is eager for commitment long before the female can bring herself to even consider the possibility.
The pacing is brilliant. The author gradually ramps up both the erotic intensity and the suspense, until the point when Jo has to reveal her secret to Nate and to the reader. Her love for him will not allow her to stay silent any longer. Then she tries to leave, because she must, for her own safety and for Nate’s. Nate understands this, too. He goes off to work, giving her the space to make her own decision. She packs her few things into her battered suitcase but she can’t resist going upstairs to his room, one more time.
Releasing a shaky breath, I sat on the chaise longue and pulled my knees up to my chest. The city was laid out in front of me, all sprawling rooftops, eccentric, almost random twists and turns of the streets. Views of the Water of Leith and the Gardens broke up this ancient city that had worked itself under my skin...not unlike Nate.
He had given me the perfect opportunity. The moment I tole him the story of my past was the moment my fate was sealed, and the first chance I got I would leave his world behind. And now here I was, poised above departure but unable to move.
When had it happened? I couldn’t pinpoint the moment everything had changed. When it had become an impossibility for me to leave.
I watched the light change. The pale sun sank over the buildings, casting shadows into the room before twilight began and the room turned a dusky purple. It was fully dark when I heard him behind me. My heart didn’t thump. I didn’t panic. It was almost as though I was resigned.
He crouched in front of me. “You’re still here.”
“I’ve been trying not to be.”
This scene had me close to tears, something that almost never happens when I’m reading romance.
One might think that this is the happy ending, but this is only half way through the book. After this, things become truly dark – really scary – as Jo’s past catches up with her. At one point, I had to shut off my tablet for a while. Intuiting what was about to happen, I simply couldn’t bear to read further. There’s a reader’s advisory about violence and abuse associated with this novel. Take it seriously.
This dark section of the novel is equally believable, though, as Ms. Todd describes a real-life nightmare many women face. When the monster is finally defeated, terrible scars linger.
In the last quarter of the book, Jo tries to rebuild her life and her trust in herself. To be honest, I felt the book dragged a bit during these latter chapters. For one thing, it’s a bit too easy. Some therapy, a pet dog, a trip to the seashore with Nate, and years of psychological damage are undone. I’m fortunate never to have experienced anything like what Jo had to deal with, but I have close friends who have suffered in similar circumstances. It took a very long time for them to recover their sense of safety and self-respect.
In addition, there’s a sense of anti-climax. The major conflicts have been resolved and hence there’s nothing driving the narrative but the need to tie up loose ends.
On the other hand, I suspect many readers will find these chapters a huge relief after the almost unbearable tension in most of the book. Lots of sex and lots of love, including Christmas with Nate’s family. How happy can you get?
Overall, Now You See Me is a substantial and satisfying novel, as well as a brilliant instantiation of the “What’s Her Secret” theme. Jo’s secret drives the book from beginning to end. Revealed, it has as much power as it did when it was hidden. I applaud Pamela Todd’s skill in weaving this tale of terror, love and redemption.