Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl: A Nancy Chan Novel

by Tracy Quan

Published by Crown

288 pages, 2001

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The Business of Pleasure

Reviewed by Emru Townsend


I adore Sex and the City (the TV show; I've yet to read the book) but I've always found one thing unbelievable: that sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw would be so unfamiliar with New York's various underground scenes, or that she would completely avoid any mention of the sex trade. (Really, it's true. The only two references I can think of are when Carrie Fisher mistakes Bradshaw for a hooker and when supervixen Samantha Jones has to deal with noisy drag queens.)

The antidote is Tracy Quan's first novel, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl: A Nancy Chan Novel. Sort of a cross between Sex and the City and Xaviera Hollander's The Happy Hooker, Quan's semi-autobiographical book reveals the inner workings of the high-priced call-girl life and leavens it with the kind of wry neurotic humor Sex and the City fans are so fond of. The device of splitting a woman's romantic/sexual aspects into several characters is used here as well. Nancy's two working-girl friends, Allison and Jasmine, can be seen as the two extremes of her personality: Allison relies on pure emotion, rarely thinking things through and Jasmine is the consummate professional who always looks for an angle and makes sure to never have an orgasm while working.

The title Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl suggests that it's filled with sex, and it is -- just not in the way you'd think. After all, sex is a business for Nancy and she treats it as such. That means she keeps a schedule, stocks up on supplies and is sure to maintain a nice storefront, as it were. The sex itself is almost secondary.

"Some readers love the 'backstage' details -- for them, it's like reading Airport with naughty bits. Or Kitchen Confidential, though nowhere near as gross," said Quan during an e-mail interview. "Some readers hate the fact that I explore the prostitute's job in detail. I've been accused of writing stuff that is 'insufficiently dirty,' cynical -- even soulless. But my mission is to describe what sex is like when you have the soul of a shopkeeper. A professional call girl is not so much a sex worker as a shopkeeper."

It's hardly soulless; Quan writes with a wit and verve that keep things hopping and Nancy's ability to separate working concerns from everything else are always amusing, if not outright hilarious: no matter how spontaneous the action, she thinks through the possible consequences for her job. As Quan points out, she's the type of girl who always makes sure to cry into moisturized tissue to prevent redness, even in the midst of an emotional crisis.

You already know all this if you've read Quan's similarly titled 53-part serial in Salon. The serial acts as a prequel to the novel, and while it's certainly fun to get to know everybody there, it isn't necessary to enjoy the book.

In fact, even if you're a complete newcomer to the Nancy Chan experience, the book does a good job of establishing the tone on its own right from the start. The book opens with one of the ultimate guy fantasies -- having sex with two women at once -- and by the end of the page, Quan pokes holes into the illusion; as is customary to the business, Nancy and Allison are faking any actual contact with each other, quite literally going through the motions.

The levels of artifice required of a successful call girl are constantly referenced throughout: the ease with which Nancy switches personae to accommodate different customers, faking sex acts and other, more subtle pretenses necessary to the job are revealed, sometimes with entertaining results. For instance, in that opening scene the deception is accidentally revealed to Howard, the john -- only Nancy, to her embarrassment, doesn't realize this until it's far too late.

It's not all about the bedroom, though, or at least not directly. Taking place about a year after the serial, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl finds Nancy revisiting some of the issues she thought she'd resolved before. Her main concern is reconciling the future of her clandestine career with her upcoming wedding to Matt, a Wall Street whiz kid, and trying to keep Allison from seeing Jack, a former john now blacklisted for his activities (again, seen in the serial) that nearly got their circle of working girls into a lot of hot water. Complicating matters further is Allison's overzealous embrace of her new calling as a sex-worker activist, Matt's nosy sister (who is, alarmingly, an assistant DA), and the mysterious behavior and subsequent disappearance of one of her regular clients. It's no wonder she regularly visits a psychiatrist.

Quan limits each diary entry to no more than a few pages, which keeps things moving briskly. But don't mistake the pace for fluffiness: as a freelance writer, Quan has penned many articles on gender, race and sex issues. She mixes some thought-provoking topics into the book without teetering into didacticism. One of the more interesting currents that runs through the book is the notion of a caste system among sex workers. Nancy hints at this when she refers to girls who have and haven't worked for madams, but it's really brought into the open when Nancy is roped into attending a NYCOT (New York Council of Trollops) meeting with Allison. There, a Bronx streetwalker takes the organizers to task for ignoring the working-class girls on the street who have to contend with, among other things, sexually abusive cops. Later, when Jasmine finally agrees to tag along to a meeting, she explodes over potentially being categorized with porn actresses.

As enjoyable as it is, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl suffers a little for not going quite far enough. At times there's a certain feeling of repetition, as the overlay of crisis upon crisis is similar to that of the serial. There's further insight into Nancy's character through anecdotes from her past (based in part on Quan's own life), which is very much appreciated; but there doesn't seem to be enough envelope-pushing. Many of Chan's clients are married, so I asked Quan what her reaction would be if she discovered her boyfriend was seeing a call girl. It was only after that I remembered that in the serial Nancy had been cheating on Matt (defined as such because he wasn't paying) just before he proposed to her. It would have been interesting to see how Nancy dealt with at least the possibility of Matt seeing someone else.

Even more tantalizing was our discussion on revealing her work to a boyfriend: "The men I've been in love with have usually known something about my past," she said. "But I've experimented -- trying to figure out how much I want to tell. 'Something' is the key word here." Quan teases us throughout the book that a hint of her secret life might peek through her carefully constructed armor. Seeing a little "something" slip through would have added considerably to the book's charge. But given her enthusiasm for her writing career, she may be saving the topic for a future project. After all, isn't it good business to leave customers wanting a little more? | January 2002


Emru Townsend considers writing to be a form of prostitution, but looks somewhat questionable in Manolo Blahniks. You can read his complete interview with Tracy Quan on his Web site, The Critical Eye.