by M.J. Rose
Published by Lady Chatterley's Library
285 pages, 1998
Buy it online
A Stylish First Novel
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Take a novel in the style of Danielle Steel. Improve the writing by making it a tighter story with believable characters and more substance. Add a sexual theme as well as a heroine capable of saying a bunch of words Steel's characters probably don't even know, and you get the drift of Lip Service, a stylish first novel by M.J. Rose.
Like so many Steel-type heroines, Lip Service's Julia Sterling is an upper east side matron in a marriage that is satisfying financially but not emotionally. Julia's husband is handsome and successful. He's also entirely self-absorbed and doesn't sound especially nice to be around, to boot.
A nervous breakdown while she was in college left Julia emotionally weakened and ripe to fall in love with a man like Paul: a controlling single father whose wife had recently died. Paul, a psychiatrist, is utterly out of touch with his own feelings and sexuality.
"I don't want to take any medication. I don't need any," I insisted.
"Sometimes during the night, I wake up to find you fighting in your sleep. Punching the air with your fists."
"Something's unresolved in my unconscious," I offered.
"Please, you're not equipped to self-diagnose. I want you to try these new pills. See if they don't make you feel better."
To keep peace, I agreed, still believing it was more important to please Paul than to tell him the truth.
My first lie to my husband was about taking little white pills. Since then, there have been many others.
Julia is lovely, dresses well and has spent most of her life being "the good girl". Doing what was expected of her by her parents, her friends and her husband. Paul's expectations of her are largely as hostess and window dressing. She's trotted out -- most often wearing Armani -- for fund raising events and to dinner parties, but it is more the success that her presence suggests that Paul needs from her than anything she might contribute.
When an opportunity to work on a book about an institute that does sexual research presents itself, Julia takes it: over her husband's protests and behind his back. Her own research for the book finds her doing telephone calls of the phone sex variety, and this device provides much of the erotica for this erotic novel. Though the plot sounds like a cliché intro to the erotic, there's little that's clichéd about Lip Service. Rose doesn't take us down a particularly nasty road and the journey is more one of an adult's self discovery than sexual reawakening.
Lip Service is billed as a "sophisticated love story and a psychological thriller," though I found it to be neither. The love story is almost a sub-plot and the thriller aspects aren't the best rendered portions of the book. In fact they detract from the gentle eroticism that other portions of Lip Service establishes quite well.
What makes Lip Service work -- aside from Rose's strong and confident voice -- is Julia's road to self understanding. Her emergence -- as trite as it sounds -- as a whole person. Though Julia is undeniably flawed, aren't we all? Her imperfections make her entirely believable, her failures make her human and her personal breakthroughs give us hope. | August 17, 1998
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Blue Murder, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.