In at the Deep End is almost aggressively bawdy, starting with the chapter headings and the opening scene. Julia, the 26-year-old protagonist, has to hear her roommates’ sex noises, including explicit requests to each other. When she asks one of them, her friend Alice, to tone it down, Alice points out that it’s been three years since Julia made any noise. Julia realizes that even before then, sex hasn’t been very exciting for her. In fact, nothing in her life offers any excitement at all. She resolves to change that. In at the Deep End chronicles how, for better or worse, she accomplishes this.
A one-night stand with a beautiful woman artist shows Julia that what she’s been doing wrong sexually is the wrong gender. Julia treats the revelation that she’s Actually Lesbian! as though it is the mysterious key that unlocks the chest holding all the good things in life. She can’t wait to tell her friends, co-workers, therapist, and parents. (She is disappointed when her father doesn’t share her joy.) At first, coming out does lead to interesting new friends and more to do with her nights than watching Netflix while trying to ignore her roommates.
Then she meets Sam. Sam is a gorgeous and kinky artist who treats sex as a sport and Julia as just another conquest. Sam decides she’d like to keep Julia around a little while longer, and Julia enthusiastically agrees. That’s when things get strange. The title truly does apply here—Julia finds herself going from zero to 100 MPH very quickly.
Some readers will find the bulk of the novel difficult to read. Here, the much-derided term “trigger warning” definitely applies. Sex between women and men and sex between women is graphically described in extended scenes. Sam takes Julia into a variety of kinky situations, and Julia is not comfortable or happy with all of them. What truly troubled me was the abusive dynamic of the relationship. Sam is highly controlling, forces Julia to put her own needs last, and makes Julia feel infantile if she isn’t comfortable with a situation. Her friends and therapist become concerned.
However, bad decisions make good stories, and this is ultimately a great story. It helps that Julia is bright, observant, and funny. Her life outside of the bedroom (or sex club, or…) is well-drawn. There are times one will want to hug her, then shake sense into her. The Bridget Jones comparisons have some merit, as Julia has a self-deprecating sense of humor and is touchingly eager to find the end of her rainbow. It’s easy to cheer her on.
Thanks to NetGalley for providing an ARC of In at the Deep End to read and review.