Painted Doll: An Erotist’s Tale by M. Christian. Lethe Press, 2008. $13.00 (paperback), $2.99 (Kindle e-book)
Review by Gayle C. Straun
Disguises are as ancient as humanity. Think the biblical story of Tamar, who masks herself as a harlot so as to seduce her father-in-law, or call to mind every myth in which a god walks the earth in the guise of a mortal. Or you might recall Bertilak de Hautdesert, who appears to King Arthur and his men as the supernatural Green Knight. And is there any play of Shakespeare’s in which a character does not, at some point, don the garb of another to either comic or tragic effect?
In most of these stories, the disguise is adopted freely, but what about those cases in which an alternate personality is imposed upon someone who is fully conscious of the fact? How will she handle it, especially if her life, and the life of the one whom she loves, depends upon maintaining this ill-fitting fiction every moment of every day? These are the questions posed by M. Christian in Painted Doll: An Erotist’s Tale, an erotist being a body artist who specializes in neurochemical paints that evoke the purest emotion when applied to bare skin. The particular erotist at the center of this story is Domino—cold, calculating, and ultimately professional, the complete opposite of the shy and awkward Claire Munroe, who she once was, before her underworld boss Taka ordered her execution due to suspicion of theft. To escape his clutches, Claire became Domino, while her lover, a woman named Flower, fled to a commune in New Zealand. Though they yearn for each other every waking and dreaming moment, they must remain apart lest they attract the attention of Taka’s assassins, while Claire has to play Domino to the hilt, mixing the demureness of the geisha with the aloofness of one of the three Fates, even though every moment as Domino kills a little more of Claire, the woman who wants nothing more than to rest in her lover’s arms again and be safe.
Readers familiar with M. Christian’s previous work will find many of the author’s usual flourishes on full display here: a world slightly removed from ours but not overbuilt, a storyline that runs the gamut of emotions, sex that is often as clumsy or disappointing as it is ultimately ecstatic, and an acknowledgement that the erotic and “reality” are not as separate as the moralists or Hollywood scriptwriters would have us believe. That said, Painted Doll is probably one of M. Christian’s weaker offerings, having the feeling more of a short story that has been well padded than a fully realized novel; indeed, the first chapter is little more than an overlong description of Domino walking down a city street, while many of the erotist sessions attempt to stand alone as stories in their own right but seem rather repetitive cumulatively. Indeed, the full-length novel form, especially with a story featuring but a handful of characters, does not speak to this writer’s strengths, which tend to lie in creating immensely powerful but brief narratives. However, as a friend of mine recently remarked, a bad Woody Allen movie is better than ninety percent of whatever’s showing, and the same might be said of Painted Doll—it’s not this author’s best, but it’s more thoroughly realized and emotionally resonant than many comparable works out there.
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