I’ve said this on the site before, but during the pandemic, I’ve gotten more into contemporary romance, mostly because people getting to do things like attend in-person gatherings, see movies and plays, and eat at restaurants seems sexy and novel. My latest contemporary read was The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan, a companion novel to The Roommate. I have a lot to say on this one! Prepare yourself for a long review. (As a note, you probably don’t need to read The Roommate to understand this book, although it was fun to see the main characters from The Roommate make several appearances here.)
BITCHERY! This book was so emotionally raw, funny, hot, and moving. The story touches on themes of sex work stigma and sex positivity, religious practice and faith, and modern intimacy. The romance pairs a badass ice queen heroine with a sweet beta hero. Both the main romance and the individual journeys of the main characters were quite beautiful, and I loved this book almost the entire way through. (The ending was a bit of a clunker for me, but we’ll get to that later).
Naomi Grant, who had a major role as Josh’s ex-girlfriend and fellow porn performer in the first book, is the heroine here. She is still running Shameless (bascially a sexy adult sex-ed online subscription) with Clara, the heroine of the The Roommate. Naomi has a master’s in psychology and wants to try her hand teaching on human sexuality and relationships, but is having trouble finding any “serious” institutional setting that will let her teach. At a conference on education, she meets Ethan, an unconventional (and very hot) Rabbi who wants her to teach a course on relationships and intimacy connected to his synagogue in the hopes of attracting Jewish people who are not currently practicing much. She somewhat reluctantly agrees.
The chemistry between Naomi and Ethan is OFF THE CHARTS right out the gate. Naomi puts a lot of effort into resisting her attraction to him because she believes that as a former porn performer she would only cause problems for Ethan if they got involved. But of course the connection builds and builds until it boils over. (More on their romance later).
I LOVED Naomi as a heroine. I was completely sold on her from this line in the first few pages:
There was something about flirting, just a little—the tiniest sip—with her own destruction that appealed to the darkness in her.
Give me a heroine with some darkness in her heart any day!
In addition to being somewhat hard-edged, Naomi is smart, confident, bold, and principled. She is very invested in facilitating open dialogue about sex and lessening shame and self-consciousness around sex, especially for women.
Naomi remains a badass, quick-witted, and assertive force of nature throughout. But at the outset of the book, she is also incredibly guarded and puts effort into keeping most people at a distance. She has a conversation with Clara somewhat early in the book:
“You think everyone is sexy,” the brunette said simply.
“Not everyone,” Naomi protested. She didn’t think her current mail carrier was sexy. Now her predecessor, on the other hand…
“That’s true,” Clara said, thoughtful, as she wiped down the lens of her sunglasses on her skirt. “Lately it’s narrowed down to everyone mean.”
Well, sure. It was easier to keep mean people at arm’s length.
That last sentence pretty much sums up Naomi’s capital-p Problem: because she has been hurt pretty badly in her life, she does not want to open herself up to many people she could actually love. She is very comfortable with sexual intimacy, but not so much with emotional closeness.
Her journey in this book is mostly about reconnecting with the parts of herself that she excised at a young age because of trauma, and figuring out how to integrate parts of her “old” self with her current self. (Side note here: I did not necessarily love that it is revealed that trauma is basically what led Naomi to sex work, but I did think this arc was handled without minimizing Naomi’s agency throughout, so I came back around to neutral on this.) Some of this journey involves her romance with Ethan, but a lot of it involves her own personal work. For example, she starts to reconnect with her Jewish faith and makes an effort to cultivate more emotional intimacy with her close friends.
I really liked that even as Naomi became more open to emotional intimacy and less cut off from her own heart, she didn’t lose her hard edges. I hate hate hate it in any romance when “love” causes one or both parties to change their entire personality, but I especially hate it when “love” makes an abrasive woman more normatively feminine. Ew!!! Save me from heterosexual romance where a woman is “tamed” by a man. Naomi had positive growth and change, but she didn’t need to change her fundamental personality or most of her values.
Even though I would say I was compelled more by Naomi and her struggles, I also did really like Ethan as a hero. He is a former scientist who became a rabbi after the death of his father caused him to reconnect with his faith in a major way. He wants to do good for people in general but struggles with navigating the core relationships in his life, such as with his mother and sister. As a religious-ish person with a complicated relationship with the actual organized religion I was raised in, I enjoyed the way Ethan talks and thinks about faith throughout the book. I also appreciated how gaga he was for Naomi from the moment he met her and his willingness to go to bat for her again and again. He’s just a good dude! A sweet beta cinnamon roll good dude!
The romance between Naomi and Ethan felt very…full to me, if that makes sense? They are two well-rendered characters who seem to connect in a profound and multidimensional way. They have great banter, deep conversations, can fully let their guards down together, and have incredible chemistry. While Ethan helps Naomi open up to emotional intimacy again, she helps him to be more assertive and clear within his own life and relationships. They have things to teach each other, and it’s beautiful.
There’s A+ banter:
“Ugh.” She pushed his shoulder. “Don’t look at me like that.”
“Like what?” he frowned.
“Like—where did you even get those eyelashes?”
He smiled. “If this look is working for you, can you do me a favor and describe it in more detail, ‘cause I’m not sure I could re-create it intentionally?”
“No. I’m not making you more powerful.” Naomi pushed him again, further toward the water.
There are also moments of knee-weakening romance:
Moonlight hit the hollows of her cheekbones, the divot of her upper lip, her stubborn jaw. If they weren’t both barely breathing, he’d tell her how looking at her was sometimes so good that it hurt.
The sexy scenes are hot, but honestly, what I loved most about this book is the way it successfully captures that early-dating feeling when you meet someone you are super excited about, and how you are trying to learn literally everything about them and kind of smoosh your mind into their mind and your soul into their soul.
So, I loved the main couple individually and together. I loved the dialogue. To be honest, I was sure I was going to give this book an A+/Squee until the end. Which, unfortunately, was kind of a clunker, and truthfully the only thing about The Intimacy Experiment I didn’t love. I will try to keep this as detail-free as possible, but since it concerns the very last chapters of the book, I’ll put this behind a spoiler:
Minor plot spoiler ahead
As is very common in romance novels, Naomi and Ethan face an 11th-hour obstacle to their budding love. While she is sad and looking for a distraction, Naomi agrees to fly to her childhood hometown and give a lecture on sex ed to the graduating seniors. While she’s there, she has a quasi-meltdown onstage and instead of talking about sex ed like she’s supposed to, she does some VERY personal rambling about break-ups and how she’s dealing with it for the entire assembly of 17-year-olds.
I think what we are supposed to get from this overshare with teenagers is that Naomi is now more in touch with her emotions and more open to human connection, even when it hurts. But I thought this was an incredibly out of character way of showing it. Naomi’s entire thing is that she believes young people (and people in general) are totally unprepared to navigate sex and intimacy, and she wants to help prepare them. I found it hard to believe that she would be selfish enough to deny these teenagers a chance to get actual, valuable information that she could provide, that she knows firsthand they aren’t getting, to engage in a (probably very therapeutic, but self-indulgent in this setting) monologue. I think if this same monologue happened in a different setting (e.g. talking to friends) it would read very differently to me, but as it occurs in the book I was like “ew, who is this person transgressing the boundaries of a bunch of teens.” It felt contrived.
In addition to this head-scratching assembly interlude, the reunion between Naomi and Ethan basically involves a grand-gesture type situation involving various oblique emails instead of someone just calling to have a conversation. A lot of this book is concerned with how relationships actually progress and resolve conflict in the real world (e.g. by people talking to each other) so to me it would have been far more in-keeping with the rest of the book for Naomi and Ethan to just…talk to each other.
Then, once Naomi and Ethan get back together, all of their other external problems seem to get solved VERY quickly. This actually really bothered me! I’m of course not saying we shouldn’t have an HEA. I’m just saying that being happy in your relationship does not necessarily mean that every other obstacle in your life magically disappears, which is basically what happens in this book. I would have dramatically preferred if we could see how Naomi and Ethan were going to move forward together as a team, tackling those problems.
The whole ending feels like a cheesy 90s rom-com, which might have been fine if the rest of the book had not done such a great job creating a relationship and characters that felt like real people. It’s a tonal shift that did not work for me.
I know I’ve spent many words critiquing the ending, but I still have very positive feelings about this book overall. Truthfully, I thought this book was yell-at-your-friends-about-it amazing until the last 90% or so. And it’s not even that I hated the last 10%, it just felt like it belonged to a different book–one that leaned more into typical rom-com tropes instead of one that put so much work into establishing characters and relationships that felt more true-to-life.
Overall, though, I found The Intimacy Experiment to be a very strong entry in the annals of “sexy ice queen melts for beta hero and beta hero only” romance. The dialogue is excellent when it’s funny, when it’s serious, and when it’s tender. The characters are people I would want to know in real life, and their relationship is a joy to read about. I loved the way this book explored modern ideas about sex, intimacy, relationships, and faith. If any of those themes appeal to you, or you love an ice queen heroine and/or a beta hero, this book is a fun read.