Review: When the Siren Calls


Asa Bennett reads the first of a new trilogy of “50 Shades of Grey meets business”

Tom Barry lived the dream. He worked with Microsoft, Disney, Sony and Toyota, he rubbed shoulders with Tiger Woods and Robert Redford.

But after 20 years as a management consultant (for Accenture, PwC et al.), he packed it in to pen a book of bawdy business erotica.

He’s got high hopes, planning it to be the first of a trilogy. His publishes hope it’ll be the next 50 Shades. So what’s Barry’s debut like?

It’s got the core essentials you’ll find in E.L James, a seemingly innocent woman gets swept off her feet by a successful charming devil of a man as they embark on much hijinks together.

It’s tempting to say that the heroine Isobel is the book’s Anastasia Steele, who falls for the swashbuckling Jay Brook, the book’s Christian Grey. But that wouldn’t do it justice.

Isobel doesn’t seem to be given a surname, but there is a lot more to focus on – like her dire romantic straits.

She’s an older woman “trapped” in a 15-year marriage to a workaholic management consultant husband, Peter. Meanwhile, Jay is a shifty wheeler-dealer trying not to get shafted by a timeshare project in Tuscany and letting his partner take the fall. The book does get bogged down on the business arrangements for these timeshares, with whole chapters focusing on what will happen with them in an extra plot-line. Don’t worry, it gets weaved in near the end as Jay is in danger of shafting Isobel…over a timeshare.

Of course, the real show is Jay and Isobel’s romance – all starting from when he rescues her from an aggressive shopkeeper in a souk in Marrakesh, and from that point – she’s hooked.

The trouble is, the pair are utterly terrible people. Isobel hates her husband for having to work so much, huffing and puffing about her lack of “fulfillment” while traipsing around the world. It’s less surprising that Jay is unlikeable, he’s got a wife, a girlfriend – “the nymphomaniac Lucy”, gets entangled with Isobel and is just a cocky lothario.

For their romance to work, it does help if you can believe in them. Isobel seems to become obsessed with Jay just because he is “confident” and can string sentences together, pining for him like some sort of teenager as she rebels against her husband. You have to wade to half-way in the story (page 162, as the author notes) until you get to their first sex scene, which seems to come out of nowhere.

I kid you not. After Jay kisses Isobel for the first time as they go out for a horse-ride, she frets about how hard it is to let go of the fact that she has been in a monogamous marriage. She has been spending the past few chapters tearing herself apart over her feelings for Jay, doubting whether she could go through with being unfaithful after just being with Peter for 20 years. Jay’s response? He lunges for her and through this alone, in less than a page, Isobel is begging him to have his way with her.

The female characters seem all too paper-thin, used as window-dressing for the romantic scoundrel, Jay. It’s hard to avoid thinking that the book is aimed at men who want their own version of 50 Shades (infamously popular among housewives).

Given how easy Isobel gets hooked on Jay – you almost wonder why she has never done this before? Jay’s girlfriend Lucy is just the same. A nymphomaniac, a “former pole-dancer” (as we keep being told), with well-toned, himble legs and “supple flesh”. She is almost falling over herself to please Jay and make him leave his wife – “Rusty” (yep it’s a love square!”)

You may wonder – what are the romance scenes like?

Don’t expect fireworks. In fact, some lines are accidentally hilarious.

In one scene, Isobel is looking “almost business-like” in a pinstriped skirt as she enjoys Jay’s company. All you need to know is Jay goes on to disrobe her and reveal her “decidedly unbusiness like parts underneath”. Cor.

At another point, Jay – the charmer – leaves “fluid” on Isobel, “twisted in the shape of a symbol”. Afterwards, the rest of their hijinks is recounted with a dry literalness that feels like it’s being narrated by a computer. Cue titbits like “he asked her….so that she could watch it” and “she nodded assent”.

Later on, there’s a rather seedy scene of Lisa trying to impress Jay by cavorting with a girl for his entertainment in a club. You get a good lot on how there are young nubile lasses from Siberia, and it’s rather grimy.

On the plus side, the book is very readable, with Barry depicting the locations like Tuscany and Marrakesh gorgeously.

However, for all the sumptuous imagery and class in When the Siren Calls, the characters come across as rushed excuses to get to the the sex scenes, which themselves skirt dangerously into the cringeworthy rather than racy.

Then again, maybe that is a risk with all “racy” novels – as Gilbert Gottfried, the actor who voiced the parrot in Disney’s Aladdin, demonstrates with his awfully hilarious reading of “50 Shades of Grey”.