I Dared to Dream by Stephanie Lee

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

First, a word about words. I Dared to Dream uses the word “bitch” quite liberally and precisely, so it’s hard to avoid when describing the book. But I’m not a big fan of that word, so I’m going to be replacing it throughout this review with the word “sandwich.” I apologize in advance for any confusion, and for everything I do in general on this blog. Also, a serious trigger warning: this book contains sexual violence, and we will talk about it in this review.

I Dared to Dream is a dark romance by debut author Stephanie Lee. It is the story of Summer Lynn (whose initials are the same as the author’s, hmmm…), a young professional who just can’t convince life to stop kicking her ass, so she decides to kick a little ass of her own. Not her own ass, mind, someone else’s. And now I’ve said the word ass too many times for someone who just wrote a preamble about not using offensive language. Can’t be helped.

Summer Lynn is bland and boring. At 31 she works a dead-end job at Office Company, and has no friends other than her cat. This is mainly due to the fact that the office is populated exclusively by catty sandwiches who have no work to do all day but ruin the lives of their coworkers. We’ll see later that this is not unusual behavior for a group of women, of any age, and is in fact just default human female operation. Her boss, Bill Lumbergh, is a total son-of-a-sandwich who continually passes her over for promotion, despite her superior work ethic and performance, in favor of pretty girls. Holding court among these superficial pretty girls is Krista, Queen Sandwich. Krista orchestrates a smear campaign implicating Summer Lynn for going out for drinks one night before work. Lumbergh suspends her without pay while telling her how disgusted he is in her, which… I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure your boss isn’t supposed to put that much mustard on a disciplinary action. But Krista isn’t the only sandwich in this office. Superficial evil pretty girl Madison exposes one of the boss’s sexual conquests, Leah, by emailing out a sex tape. Lumbergh covers his ass by firing Leah, and comforts Madison as she cries crocodile tears. Summer Lynn spends most nights crying herself to sleep on the floor of her closet over old magazine clippings and a bottle of wine. She longs for a better version of herself, one with 90s-era Long Island tattoos and a devil-may-care, boss-ass sandwich attitude.

“[Madison] had been pining over [Lumbergh] for years now, to no avail. He wasn’t interested in an almost 40 year old full figured woman… Besides, everything about her was fake and contrived to try and make herself into something she didn’t hate.”

This brings us to an extended flashback in which we learn just what brought Summer Lynn to such depths of despair and self loathing. In college she studies too hard to have any interest in sex, or to leave the room when her sandwichy roommate brings home a boy. But then she meets Braxton. Braxton tells her she’s not like the other stupid superficial evil pretty girls, so they make out and have sex and stuff. Summer Lynn is instantly amazing at sex her first time (hmmm…). Braxton takes her to his sexy brooding spot, where he confesses that he has wealthy parents who are very exacting and expect him to marry a stupid superficial blonde evil pretty girl. But they trade I love yous anyway. Braxton can be a bit dominant, and Summer Lynn insists that nice, gentle sex is a myth perpetuated by women. So everything’s going great.

But Summer Lynn’s quest to become a valuable person (Hard work! Hot boyfriend!) is interrupted by the arrival of her stupid perky superficial blonde evil pretty girl sister, Sophia. Summer Lynn hates everything about Sophia, from her stupid sandwichy face to her stupid sandwichy voice, and the way she has had everything handed to her throughout her stupid sandwichy life. This is where things get dark, so I’ll run through it as quickly as possible. Here goes. Braxton shows up drunk one evening and violently rapes Summer Lynn. Even though she forgives him, he soon dumps her for Sophia, who has been infiltrating their relationship from day one and when confronted calls Summer Lynn a whore. At this point Summer Lynn starts to spiral. She remembers all the times her mother called her fat, or her sister told her to kill herself, only to later ask for money. A therapist looks at her as if the young woman is wasting her time. When she discovers she is pregnant from that fateful night, she moves into the back of a bookstore to hide from the rest of the student body. But some stupid perky superficial evil blonde pretty sorority girl finds her in the stacks and pours insults over her head about how Braxton is lucky to be marrying Sophia, a superior woman of a more elite class. While preparing for the birth of her baby, Summer Lynn is lured down a dark alley by a recording of a crying infant, where she is stabbed, causing the death of her baby. And that’s where our story returns to the present day.

I really tried to make that as painless as possible, but seriously, this book is basically one long Mister Bill sketch with the claymation puppet replaced by Summer Lynn’s self esteem. Our cartoonishly battered protagonist is smacked from one horrible nightmare to the next, pausing occasionally for sex scenes. Besides the creeping suspicion that at any moment this could turn into a snuff piece, what held me back from really feeling the emotional impact of these tribulations was the way Summer Lynn herself is written. From cover to cover she is petulant, judgmental, and every bit as shallow as the women she despises. Her constant complaining about fakeness make her sound like Holden Caulfield if he switched bodies with Murphy Brown. An inability to root for the perspective character makes all that violence and cruelty feel gratuitous, like I’m watching security camera footage of a car crash.

More than anything else, I Dared to Dream is a carnival ride of petty hatreds. Summer Lynn hates hipsters, cold weather, text messages, words that are slurred, words that are too enunciated, and colonial-style houses. She hates women, but this last is forgivable, since she lives in a world where every woman is an eldritch horror, shambling out of the ocean with the sole purpose of setting Summer Lynn’s life on fire.

Curiously, she doesn’t seem to hate men, even though every single man in the story is a sex predator, except for one who is gay. Now, I’m not out here crying into my beer about the misrepresentation, objectification, or villification of men in romance novels. Quite the opposite. I’ve read too many books about a shirtless lumberjack with a dubious understanding of BDSM to stand on that soap box.

But it’s telling that men in this book are the only ones who have to earn their spot in Hell. This makes I Dared to Dream a photo negative of The Traveler, a book about a young man who falls in love with a giant talking spider. In that book, which completely exists, our protagonist is a man in his early thirties whose mundane life is going nowhere, but love comes to him anyway, and he learns to be vulnerable and giving. I’m probably reading too much into the gender difference between those two books, but have you ever seen that Mitchell and Webb sketch about commercials for women and men? If you have, you know what I mean when I say I Dared to Dream is the book version of “Women: sort yourselves out,” and The Traveler is the book version of “Men: shave and drink beer, because you’re already brilliant.”

OK, back on topic. It’s difficult to tell what Summer Lynn hates more, the world, or herself. Our protagonist only admits her strengths when contrasting them to the many deficiencies of sandwiches, or to the lack of recognition that the world bestows upon her. Some of the most visceral abuse she hurls is directed at her own shortcomings, like not having a lip ring. She longs to be someone else, even though no one else seems to be any good, either. I spent less time wondering how Summer Lynn would get even with the world, and more time wondering when she would finally name the monster that is stalking her: depression. Depression often takes the form of blaming one’s self-loathing on external circumstances, and Steph- I mean Summer Lynn’s custom-built world provides plenty of horrible external circumstances to validate this belief (with bonus “therapy is useless” trope!). Within the logic of the book, it is not obvious that the problem is one of mental health, because the smoke screen that depression uses to hide from its host is built into the reality of the story, not by its characters, but by its creator.

What I’m saying is, whether she intended to or not, Stephanie Lee has written a book about the depression of an author. Is this what dark romance is? Asking for a friend. Looking through the offerings on Amazon, one would be forgiven for assuming that dark romance is the place we go to let our fears excite us without anyone else looking or judging or calling the police. Undeconstructed fantasies of captivity, assault, and murder abound. I think I am too much the sort to ask questions like why or who or what the hell is going on to really enjoy books like this. But if you’re looking for a sexy story about a woman who is savaged by a brutal world only to sandwich-slap the world in return, then I Dared to Dream is your book. It’s a reasonable four dollars on Kindle.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

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