As I read Tiffany Reisz’s The Red, at different times I was admiring, disappointed, spellbound, and horrified. At no point, though, did I want to stop. I doubt I’ll read it again, but damned if memorable quotes from it aren’t stuck in my head somehow.
Mona Lisa St. James owns an art gallery, The Red, which is deeply in debt, and since Mona promised her dying mother that she would take care of the gallery, she’s determined to do so. Then an unlikely savior appears. After closing hours, she finds a man studying an dull, unremarkable painting, but when she questions him about what he’s doing there, he tells her the painting isn’t what it appears to be. Mona investigates and discovers a far more valuable painting hidden beneath it.
This stroke of good fortune is still not enough to raise what the gallery needs, but a week later the man reappears, introduces himself as Malcolm and makes her an offer she can’t refuse. Or perhaps it’s a deal with the devil. He’s very attracted to her and wants carte blanche to do whatever he pleases to her once every month or so for a year. In return she’ll get a million dollars. Incidentally, he’ll pay her in artwork, since he happens to be a collector, and likewise, their sessions together are inspired by scenes from various erotic paintings.
Mona is extremely turned on by Malcolm—not just his darkly handsome looks, but his intelligence, sense of humor, cool control, and secrecy. He’s obviously not telling her a great deal about himself, but he says he’s doing this because he also made a deathbed promise, one he’ll keep at all costs. And so their increasingly erotic and increasingly surreal encounters begin.
The sex scenes are as inventive as they are disturbing. At one point Mona opens the door to her storage room, where she usually waits to meet Malcolm, and finds that he has apparently constructed some sort of labyrinth there. She realizes at once that she’s in the Minotaur’s maze, and all I could think was, “Please don’t let there be an actual bull in this scene.” Thankfully there wasn’t. Everything between the two of them is consensual, even when it doesn’t seem entirely safe or when Mona doubts the state of her mental health.
The story also has an extremely positive treatment of sex workers. Malcolm makes it clear that by trading sex for money, Mona has become a whore (get used to that word if you plan to read this), but he sees nothing wrong with a woman who knows her own worth and who has enough power over her body to use it to meet her financial needs. Later, in an attempt to forget about him, Mona has sex with an art historian who discovers her arrangement with Malcolm and gets dressed to leave, clearly disgusted by her. She gives the historian a piece of artwork, and although he doesn’t refuse – the art is too valuable – he calls her a whore. She replies,
“Not today. Today I’m buying. So what does that make you?”
Reisz heroines have the best comebacks.
The disappointing part of the story was the end. Without giving spoilers, it wasn’t one that I found entirely satisfying. The gallery is saved, secrets are revealed, and there’s an HEA, but the ending felt rushed and I would have preferred more of an emotional connection when it came to the meeting that wrapped matters up.
That said, this was overall a very satisfying book. It has a paranormal aspect which requires some suspension of disbelief, but the writing is so accomplished that it’s easy to be drawn into the story, like being pulled into a painting of another world. As fascinating as it is erotic, The Red is a recommended read.