Pepper’s Penance (2021)

Book cover for Davina Lee's Pepper's Penance, which features two young women. The first, apparently naked, crosses her legs and rests her arms atop her knee. She sits on a piano. The second woman stands behind her, holding her hands to the first woman's ears. They both look at the camera.

Author: Davina Lee

Content Warnings: Cancer

Genre: Sapphic Erotic Romance

Ashley Zimmer is the third-generation owner of A to Z Music, a brick and mortar store severely impacted by the dot-com boom. Refusing to call it quits, she see salvation in Pepper Alverez, the lonely woman who plays beautiful, haunting music every weekend without fail at a public piano in a neighborhood park. Everything would be alright if she could only get the crowds that gather at the park, into her store.

But the agreement to play in Ashley’s store during the winter months does not come without baggage. Pepper’s sad, minor key blues riffs and improvisations come from a long list of what she sees as her past sins. Playing the piano is the only way she knows to express those feelings and begin her atonement. It is her penance.

As Ashley begins to understand Pepper, she’s faced with a choice. Does she view their friendship as a temporary business agreement, giving Pepper a place to play while getting the store back on its feet, or is it something more. And when Pepper makes things less than easy, how far is Ashley willing to go? Will she take the risk, turning a tenuous friendship into something more?

Book Blurb

RATING out of 10 violets, with 1 being the least and 10 being the most pain

5/10 appropriately painful violets.

This review contains spoilers.

Pepper’s Penance landed in my lap this past winter when I’d reached out to Twitter’s writing community looking for books on musicians. Davina Lee had promised me a happy(ish) Sapphic love story, and so I was more than willing to take the plunge.

And I’m so glad I did.

Although this blog is dedicated to rating pain levels in queer media so that you don’t have to endure unnecessary tragedy/suffering, you might’ve figured out that I do like my fiction (queer or not) with a healthy dose of pain. This novel, for me, sits at the perfect spot between fluffy painlessness and excruciating pain. There is a healthy dose of doubt that exists within music store owner Ashley Zimmer and pianist Pepper Alverez’s relationship, which makes for a delicious will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic. But Pepper’s deeper past with love and tragic loss (and the possibility that this tragic past will prevent her and Ashley from ending up together) adds a really sincere and achy dimension to the story. So many erotic romances I’ve read seem to be constructed around the sole purpose of setting up for the Big Bang, if you will, but Ashley and Pepper are uniquely charming and deeply complex characters that I ached for once I finished this book (a rather quick read).

Obviously, I expected my favorite parts to be the spicy bits. That is why we read erotic romance, right? But what closely rivaled these scenes were the ones in which Pepper opens up about her complicated past relationship with an older woman, who dies of cancer and leaves Pepper everything she owns. It destroyed me in ways I wasn’t expecting it to. While this book does engaged with the bury your gays trope, it doesn’t leave Pepper entirely destitute and forever alone. Cue Ashley’s entrance into her life.

Although pain figures quite heavily in the second half of the story, it is done so in a way that protects the lovers we care about most. In a way, Lee’s engagement with the bury your gays trope and Sapphic pain seeks to reconcile what we have come to expect out of queer love stories with what is possible now that we are able to write and shape media for ourselves and people like us.

As a repeat fan of Davina Lee’s work, I cannot recommend her more highly.

PEPPER’S PENANCE on JMS Books (A Small Queer Press) | Amazon

If you’d like a taste of some of Davina Lee’s other work, check out her website, Wax Philosophic, for free erotica.

Davina Lee on Literotica, featuring her lesbian space pirates series, Tales from the Stream

Davina Lee on Twitter


One response to “Pepper’s Penance (2021)”

  1. Is it still considered “burying your gays” when they’re already dead?

    Spoilers ahead…

    “Bury Your Gays is a literary trope that has appeared in media across genre since the end of the 19th century. Works using the trope will feature a same-gender couple and with one of the lovers dying and the other realizing they were never actually gay, often running into the arms of a heterosexual partner.” [Hulan]

    In Pepper’s Penance, Pepper’s wife Natalie is already dead and buried from the beginning. What we learn about their relationship is doled out bit by bit through Pepper’s recounting of the story to Ashley over the course of their getting to know each other. Far from running into the arms of a hetero partner, Pepper seeks her solace in her long and often awkward times spent with Ashley, her only real friend.

    So why take this approach instead of tackling Pepper and Natalie’s relationship directly from the beginning?

    You can blame F. Scott Fitzgerald for that one. I had just reread The Great Gatsby (for fun this time, not a literary analysis for high school English.) And what I noticed about it the second time around was how the story was told from the first person, but by a narrator who was not the main character. (Nick Carraway, rather than Jay Gatsby.)

    I found this to be a fascinating approach to story telling. Sharing someone’s story without being able to get into their thoughts as you might in a third-person omnicient point of view. So while I was revising the draft of Pepper’s Penance for the umpteenth time, I decided to stick Ashley in a role like Nick Caraway; observing, listening, and drawing conclusions.

    I also loved the way Gatsby ended, where after nine chapters and 47000 words I was left muttering, “Damn. All that for a girl.” I relished that feeling and my hope was I could pull off something similar with Pepper’s Penance.

    But Pepper’s Penance is not The Great Gatsby. It’s not literary fiction, not even by a long shot. Pepper’s Penance is an awkward love story between Pepper, a woman stuck in a period grief and guilt, and Ashley, the woman who sees Pepper’s talents as a way to save her ailing music business. As the two get closer, Natalie’s contribution to Pepper’s current state is slowly revealed. And hopefully at the end, you’ll mutter, “Damn.”

    And when you’re done, read it again. This time asking yourself questions like, “What’s with Dave the deli delivery guy going on about his guitar pedals?” and “Why is Pepper’s dog on the bed when they’re finally getting intimate?” Yeah, it’s erotic romance, but I assure you, there’s not a word in the book that doesn’t somehow relate to the relationship between Ashley, Pepper, and Natalie.

    I’m on Twitter as @davinaleeauthor if you want to chat about it. And thanks so much to Save Sappho for choosing Pepper’s Penance to review! I’m still squealing like a child everytime I think about it.

    [Hulan] https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1579&context=mcnair

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