Marianne starts off as the kind of book that readers quietly hunger to read because it promises relationships on the stumbling level of real human beings. It manages many complex themes in reasonably fluid English, and deftly knits them all together. They include the basis for polyamory; the day-to-day workings of male dominated BDSM relationships; the problem of literal versus intuitive communication and the deep differences between the genders.
I am up for all that, and the first third of Marianne engages us with a plausible, funny, articulate relationship between Simon and Marianne that is at once necessary and impossible for both. What the characters lack is that essential individual moral consciousness that rises above their immediate appetites, and worse, their vanity. That absence appears with the arrival of Mark and Sophie. More about all these folk anon.
To my relief there are no grandly erectile aliens, futuristic sex contraptions set in the past, amorous lycanthropes, cozy wormholes, boy band vampires, or other paranormal paraphernalia of the contemporary hip erotica scene in Marianne. People have sex, and the boys spank the girls.
There are one or two belts and a paddle as well as one butt plug. There is also one suspiciously oversized penis, but that may just be wishful thinking. Ordinary furniture stands in for infernal hydraulic spanking benches that seize the unwary maiden while exposing her bottom to the lash. The girls take down their own pants when told to do so. The task for the author is therefore that much harder because he cannot rely on special effects. He has to write about people. He can too, but he falls down when his characters trap him in a thematic cul de sac.
Even so, this book is an authentic modern romance without any of the usual artificial psychobabble, hair-tearing and adolescent angst of most contemporary romance fiction. The first third deals with unraveling Marianne from her knotted self. She discovers her true nature as a submissive, which resolves much of her internal conflicts and thus her unhappiness.
That part of Marianne is a romance that reveals the subtle evolution and deepening of a relationship with Simon based on dominance and submission. Marianne is the submissive who can command any and all sorts of glittering attention from anyone in most of her life. In love she needs a truly dominant male lover along with the occasional bottom-searing spanking to keep her balanced and happy. Simon learns about himself as she grows.
The moments of humor between them are genuinely funny and authentically odd in the way conversation is between people who venture into new emotional territory in the name of love. For them, the risk of embarrassment by sounding nutty or being silly is far outweighed by the possibilities created by reaching beyond such concerns.
Isn’t that what we all want from our lover? Don’t we yearn for them to go beyond their own boundaries of comfort? Don’t we want them to risk themselves because they want us so badly? Isn’t that why in the actual literature of romance, the lovers are heroic? Shakespeare is full of people who he often conjured from medieval romances. Implicitly, however, that love is unselfish like Berowne’s in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and harkens to an enduring larger human order. It’s not just filling a greedy appetite for sexual power.
Then we are introduced to Mark and Sophie at which point the novel takes a distinct turn for the worse as it seems to argue, perhaps by default, that BDSM is a rationale for male cruelty – both physical and psychological—toward women. Marianne thus adds to the popular myth that the practice of BDSM is limited to brutal anarchists and the depraved of all sorts and classes.
If that weren’t enough, the ensuing complex adventures give the impression that insensitive brutality is the proof of a really strong -- and therefore hot -- man. Have we not had enough of Sergeant Slaughter and Blackwater? Most offensive is the curious theme that men seem to rule women by some toffee-nosed public school notion of divine right. All these themes are served up in rather windy, wandering prose that a passable editor could have either incised or eliminated.
To his credit, the author makes his themes organic to his characters’ collective and individual nature. They have, sadly, the mindset of Thatcherite Sloane Rangers with a Neo-con worldview that is still widely shared, if slightly tempered by the crash of 2008. Greed is still good.
Sophie is pathetic not because she is an extreme submissive, but because she wants to abnegate herself and Simon will oblige. She is a long suffering admirer of Simon who agrees to take her on as his household slave only after he has repeatedly rubbed it in that he loves only Marianne, not her. Sophie wants her mind drubbed into ‘off’ mode through sterile obedience.
As she says:
Oh Simon! I appreciate every single minute that you spend with me, every word you say! They're like presents to me, every one of them, special presents! All I want to do is earn them all I can and make sure that you stay happy with me.
What person really wants that unbroken flow of automatism? Simon gasses on about his cruelty to Sophie with Marianne as though Sophie’s suffering were some act of Providence. He is but the hapless agent of “the grace of God” as follows:
You've put yourself in Sophie's place [Marianne], that's what. Most girls – ninety nine percent I'd say – couldn't even stretch their brains that far. They'd just grandly say 'oh I could never be as weak as her' or 'there's no way I'd ever let myself get into that position' - like people ever get to choose which form of the monster-virus known as love attacks them. . . .[Editor’s deletion]. Fact is, we’re all just cobwebs in the wind. Before I met you, I'd have said not me and couldn't happen with the best of them, and before she met me, I daresay Sophie would have said the same things too. We're all too dumb and proud to really know that there but for the grace of God go any of us anywhere at any time at all.
Marianne is herself a spoiled upper middle class brat whose only regret for her appalling bad manners and neurotic behavior is that no one has beaten her senseless to set her straight. Objectively, she certainly has a point, but that has nothing to do with the merits or failings of BDSM. She is just selfish and thus repulsive. She does, however, finally tell Mark, her Ubermensch boyfriend, that he is a “self-righteous arrogant pig.” It almost redeems her because, if anything, Mark is most certainly that and worse.
Mark seems a Titan of the City or what Americans now laughingly – if ruefully -- call a Master of the Universe. He is actually an inarticulate thug who through his physical size and strength intimidates people. If you don’t like what he says, he hits you. When annoyed with women, he drags them around by their hair.
Because he makes a great deal of money intimidating people in the financial industry, he grants himself a mysterious moral authority. He is often described as a combination of “an ogre and Prince Charming,” when in fact he’s a natural-born fascist. If he didn’t have hair, he’d be a skinhead in a 2000-pound suit.
Simon is the classic public school twit rather like Bertie Wooster, a man who never ceases intoning his moral superiority while unable to put on his socks unless aided by a serf. He takes the long view of his own obsessive wheedling for Marianne, his moral cowardice with Mark and emotional cruelty to Sophie by pointing them out, and in so doing, abrogating their importance. Humbert Humbert has more of a moral compass.
We yearn for a Bolshevik with a small caliber pistol to interrupt his flow of modest, Tory self-approbation. He oozes out his unquestioned expectation that it is the confusing but necessary burden of men to rule women by some right destined by Providence.
This writer has real talent and Marianne has promise, but Mr. Lowrie cannot yet control his themes and thus his characters wind up being perverse.