On the list of 50 Shades readalikes I’ve read so far, Sylvain Reynard’s Gabriel’s Inferno has by far the least explicit sex, but it also has some of the most sensual scenes and language. Originally written as Twilight fan fiction, the book and its sequel were both best-sellers for their pseudonymous Canadian author. Some spoilers below.
Julia Mitchell is an American graduate student newly enrolled at the University of Toronto and writing her thesis on Dante. Professor Gabriel Emerson is the instructor for her Dante seminar. Due to several unfortunate coincidences, they do not get off to a good start, and Professor Emerson acts like--as described quite often in the text--an ass. What takes some time to become clear is the details of their shared past; six years before the story opens, Julia and Gabriel shared one perfect (chaste) evening which she has never forgotten. Professor Emerson, however, is a creature of some dark and lustful habits, and believes that their meeting was a product of his drug-addled imagination.
Once this misunderstanding is cleared up, Gabriel is determined not to let Julia stray far from his side again, but there are various complicating factors: she is still enrolled in his class, which makes any relationship between them a violation of university policy; he is burdened by secrets that he is convinced make him unworthy of her love; her abusive ex-boyfriend resurfaces to cause trouble; she’s a virgin who finds it hard to trust his attraction to her . . . the list goes on. But it’s a romance, so you know they will manage to be together in the end (unlike the first 50 Shades book).
My primary irritation with the book had to do with the “we met six years ago and I remember but you don’t remember me and I’m not going to tell you” plotline that consumes so much of the first part of the narrative. Julia spends so much time waiting for him to figure it out, and I’ve never liked it when romances use that kind of narrative device to create tension. However, once they got over that hump, I was able to get on board and appreciate the slow unfolding of their relationship. And I do mean slow.
The type of reader who prefers their romances to start fast, with sex in the first few chapters, should stay far away from Gabriel’s Inferno. By the time they were preparing to have intercourse for the first time, it was disc 16 (out of 16) in the audio version. This chastity, of course, makes the book very different than the 50 Shades books (although I don’t know yet what happens in the sequel, Gabriel’s Rapture, or in the forthcoming Gabriel’s Redemption). In an interview with USA Today, “Sylvain Reynard”--a male pseudonym that many consider to be hiding a female author--addressed his views on writing explicit sex:
“I think that leaving things to the imagination is what creates seduction. Sometimes one can have too much of a good thing. Part of the thrill of sex is the anticipation, so as a writer I'm conscious of that fact. In my view, sex is a mystery. If one focuses on the mechanics of sex or the awkwardness of two human beings communing physically, it takes away from the mysterious and sometimes transcendent aspects of it.”
After recently reading so many books with incredibly detailed sexual encounters, I appreciated this refreshing approach. I listened to the audio version, and the narrator was above average, especially when describing intimate scenes.
As for similarities to 50 Shades, Gabriel has many of the same controlling tendencies (bordering on asshole, until he tempers them) as Christian, as well as a taste for expensive things. Julia is a virgin, but not an innocent, and she has had a difficult life with two neglectful parents and an abusive ex. Ana’s parents are much more present and involved, but the women do share a core of strength despite their insecurity and inexperience. Other things that recall 50 Shades are the importance of music to the narrative and Julia’s lip-biting habit, as well as the obvious fact that they are both published Twilight fan fiction.
Completely unlike the EL James books is Reynard’s use of the story of Dante and Beatrice, Dante scholarship, Italian quotes, and other scholarly trappings. Themes of devils and angels, transgression and redemption, and sin and forgiveness loom large. As a former scholar myself, these parts were some of my favorites, especially when Gabriel and Julia had a fight in the seminar in which they both tried to relate their injured feelings to Dante scholarship. However, I was a bit skeptical that Gabriel, in his early 30s and with a history of drug abuse and violent behavior, would have been able to get tenure and publish prolifically enough to be one of the foremost scholars in his field. Yes, that is where I had trouble suspending my disbelief.
And one last warning, there is a near-rape scene that might cause some distress.
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