Slow Hands
Grade : A-

Slow Hands is the debut novel of playwright Lynne Kaufman, whose uncluttered prose and unique voice make her a welcome addition to contemporary women's fiction.

Sara Russack acts as narrator; she is a marriage and family counselor with an established practice in San Francisco and specializes in women's issues. Sara is at an impasse with her group, who are frustrated enough about the relentless despair of their lives to suggest a break in the therapy sessions (their first choice was a prescription for Prozac). This takes on even more significance with the death, soon thereafter, of Sara's mother: the generous bequest she left requires that Sara and her sister, Coralee, ten years her junior, use the inheritance to begin a joint business venture.

Sara and Coralee, though extremely close, are diametric opposites when it comes to their personalities and their lives. Sara is the responsible and focused wife, mother and professional helper. Coralee has an unapologetically free-spirited approach to men, career and life in general. Sara's path has been one of familiarity and predictability, and her suggestions for a new business encompass the usual and mundane: Halprin Sisters Book Store, or Interior Design Studio. Coralee wants to play with the money, to use it for something that feels more like self-expression than work: Halprin Sisters Lace and Leather Boutique, or Mighty Mud Baths. In a jackpot round of 'What if?', Coralee suggests an idea whose time has come, a bordello for women based on Sara's favorite song by the Pointer Sisters: "You want a lover with a slow hand, you want a lover with an easy touch." Though Sara is intrigued, she's also wary of the risk to her reputation and her marriage (it's not exactly something she wants to fess up to hubby), and she stalls for time by agreeing to consider it while they start looking for real estate that could be used just as easily, and more traditionally, for a bed-and-breakfast.

Coralee takes it upon herself to put an ad in the city's alternative newspaper, and the responses pour in. Sara's curiosity about the type of man who would answer such an ad opens a proverbial Pandora's Box that changes both their lives in ways neither expected. When one of their applicants turns out to be the dishy and intellectual maitre d', Simon, from their favorite restaurant, what began as a vague sexual fantasy turns into a therapeutic mission to heal women's battered psyches through "the adoration of women" (Andreas Capellanus, on courtly love) and "foreplay that doesn't stop" (Sara Russack, on a bit too much sake).

Those readers who prefer a story that is action-driven and punctuated by intense highs and lows may find difficulty sinking their teeth into the delicious banquet for the soul and mind that Slow Hands offers. The titillation lies not in the events that transpire between the members of Sara's group and the four men from the displaced Zen community who become their psychic healers, but in the critical questions raised about everything from enjoying the moment to "honoring the sacred and unique beauty in every living thing." How does a woman, in particular, love a body that was rejected, via divorce court, in favor of a newer, sleeker model? Is it the very transience of passion that makes it so compelling, tempting even Sara, who appreciates the comfortable familiarity and security of a marital commitment enough to be devastated by the thought of losing it? At the core of this story, though, is an even more fundamental question: how do we draw every drop of elixir from lives continually in forward motion, and learn to focus on the journey itself with minds always open to possibility, ready not only to notice but to savor the cornucopia it provides?

The first person point of view of this novel works perfectly for what is ultimately a journey into the inner workings of Sarah's mind and heart. The legacy left by her mother is rich, not only in dollars but in the variety of experience she encouraged, and the eclectic nature of her store of wisdom that still serves as a beacon for Sara and Coralee. In telling Sara's and Coralee's stories, Kaufman encompasses not only their Jewish heritage, but the gold mine of ethnic, cultural, philosophical and artistic variations among which they live and play (and dine - yum!). Being a quote freak, I loved the references to literature, philosophy and even pop music threaded throughout the story, and I especially enjoyed the ordinary extraordinariness of the relationships (Sara's husband, Harry, is a real peach).

But what I mostly enjoyed were the thought-provoking questions that emerge, not only about the quality of life, but about women and sexuality - e.g., why is woman as object of someone else's sexual fantasy so universally rewarded, while woman as orchestrator of her own sensual fantasies so threatening? (My answer to this one depends on whether I'm a cynic that day, or an optimist). Why is a middle-aged man who finds a new lease on life through a young wife and late-life paternity acceptable, often even laudatory, while his discarded first wife's flirtation with an attentive, courtly younger man is automatically characterized as a pitiable, desperate attempt to cling to forgotten youth?

The only fault I can find with the story is its villain. Granted, there are some extreme and strange characters out there, but he seemed a bit buffoonish and over-the-top to me. Otherwise, for those who like contemplating life and choices and priorities that re-adjust as we "grow up," this is one I very highly recommend.

Reviewed by Donna Newman
Grade : A-
Book Type: Women's Fiction

Sensuality: Subtle

Review Date : July 30, 2003

Publication Date: 2004

Review Tags: Jewish

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Donna Newman

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