Desert Isle Keeper
Dance by Judy Cuevas is set in France at the beginning of the 20th Century, which doesn’t sound particularly romantic, but is. Everything we consider modern was just beginning to pop: Freud, Picasso, automobiles, motion picture photography, electronic communication, feminism! And to see all these issues rolled out against a backdrop of turn-of-the-century, hub-of-the-universe Paris, and a romantically derelict castle in Normandy is delicious.
And the most tasty entree of all is Sebastien de Saint Vallier, an aristocrat, a genius, a hand-ball player and weight-lifter, a lawyer, a man completely in control. From the first paragraph you know Sebastien is going to get his hair mussed.
“Sebastien knew Marie Du Gard slightly better than her father realized. Sebastien had slept with her once. It had been a feverish encounter on a rainy August afternoon that had made no sense then and made even less now. He remembered that afternoon three years ago as a kind of a blurred, hysterical dot on the continuum of his otherwise orderly life, a little moment that was easier to pretend had never happened than to explain in the context of his normally sound, exemplary conduct.”
Sebastien’s hysterical dot was Marie DuGard’s prelude to emancipation. Wearing ankle-length skirts and a bower of yellow roses on her head, she arrives in Paris laden with the accouterments of her film-producing career. She declines the use of Sebastien’s carriage, installs him in a borrowed motorcar, takes off her high-buttoned boots, lights a cigarette, and drives off on what will be a long and bumpy ride for the elegant and sophisticated Monsieur de St. Vallier. “I. Own. My. Self.” she tells him, and means it.
When Marie’s fabulously rich and crippled father declines to lend Marie the money she needs to finish her film, she disappears with a foul-mouthed septuagenarian artist and his two nubile models, Dot and Sally. Sebastien is desolate.
He works out at his club and encounters, although he doesn’t know it, Marie’s benefactor. The artist tells Sebastien that he is too tense and prescribes a remedy. “I’m not tense,” says Sebastien tensely.
Sebastien’s sexual well-being seems to generate interest in many quarters. In Cuevas’ prequel Bliss, ‘Bastien’s utterly charming brother Nardi asks him how many women (other than his wife who had borne him five children) he had known. Sebastien replies that he is discriminating. Then Nardi asks:
Et combien d’orgasmes, ‘Bastien? How many, eh?”
Sebastien snorted and looked away, but not before a sheepish look had passed across his face.
Nardi chuckled, this time a true release. Poor Sebastien had some sort of statistic on this as well. In some way, he kept track. How funny. How sad. Sebastien counted his orgasms, presumably to measure his total against some standard. Even his private life had to measure up.
When Sebastien encounters Marie again at his crumbling ancestral home in Normandy, she leads him a merry dance through this novel that should be shelved in the reference section under “Exemplars of Writing Sexual Tension.” When at long, agonizing, last the denouement occurs, the reader is tempted to repeat Sebastian’s words on the occasion of his first experience with Marie: “Ho la la, sacre nom de Dieu!”
After reading this book, I didn’t want to read anything else. I wanted to read it over and over again because nothing else measured up to the richness of Cuevas’ work. As Marie films her motion picture at the chateau she begins to grow into seeing her work as art instead of simple entertainment. The descriptions of the process are technical enough to give a real sense of her development. Throughout the book Sebastian is revealed as more and more corporeal, less and less the mask he has developed for his life.
The relationship between Marie and her father, which impacts her dance with Sebastien, is subtly portrayed, yet powerfully presented. Cuevas never takes the easy way out. Nothing is taken for granted and every notion and emotion of every character is explored and revealed.
Everything about this book is exemplary; the plot is intricate and convincing, the characterization is multi-leveled and engaging, the setting is unusual and utterly fascinating, and the style of writing is masterful. My only demur is with the very end of the book, which felt anticlimactic.
Hmmm, I wonder why?