Books: She takes his money and exposes his body

Kate Saunders enjoys a sensuous role-reversal romp that gives a fresh twist to the relationship between Artist and Muse
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Indy Lifestyle Online

by Mary Gordon

Bloomsbury, pounds 12.99

Mary Gordon once described the manner in which women are expected to write as "Painting in watercolours". Women are admired as writers, she argued, only as long as they do not imagine their favoured subjects (emotions, the family, relationships) are worthy of oils. In , Gordon takes the different territories of the male and female artist literally, asking what would happen if the traditional roles were reversed. Is it possible for a man to offer himself for sacrifice as a woman artist's muse?

Questions cluster here like flies. When a man provides a female artist with money so that she may have time and space for creation, he is a patron. But when he has sex with the artist, does that compromise the whole deal? Even when the sex is wonderful? And if she takes his money, adopts him as her muse and ruthlessly uses and exposes his body, is that art or just nasty? Can money and art live together, or will money always corrupt?

Gordon's heroine, Monica Szabo, is an artist. She has a growing reputation, but never enough time or space in which to fulfil her potential. Then she meets "B", a rich futures trader who fancies her and loves her work. He offers to give her unlimited support. He wants to be her patron and her muse.

Since their relationship begins with the best sex 50-year-old Monica has had in years, the temptation of unlimited creative freedom is too great to resist. Her initial reservations are blown away when sex with B leads to amazing inspiration. She paints B as a series of post-orgasmic men, based on Renaissance depictions of the dead Christ. She calls her exhibition "Spent Men". B spending his money on her is as delicious and voluptuous as B spending his seed in her.

Monica's paintings enrage the anti-sex Catholic lobby, but that is not the central concern. This novel begins in the confessional tone which usually portends disaster. You expect things to go wrong, and things keep suddenly and sweetly going right. There is a brief attempt to examine the effect of a role-reversal, and the conflict between making cash and making beauty. But everyone here is hurtling towards a happy ending.

I would love to know what is going on in Mary Gordon's private life. This is either gorgeous fantasy, or very fortunate reality. I hope this marvellous writer has really found a rich lover who is a miracle under the duvet.

is incredibly entertaining, with great jokes, pungent observations, revealing discussions. Gordon revels in the sensual delights of colour, texture, taste and smell. There are many moist passages about moist passages, and why not? Despite a faint odour of self-congratulation, it has a purpose and shape beyond the sex and shopping.