Mary Gordon's newest book, Spending, is a romance novel for smart people. It's erotic, funny, and provides all the pleasures of a good bodice-ripper with a key distinction: the female love interest is a fully realized character. She's got brains, depth, even angst.

The book begins in the way of every storybook romance. Boy meets girl, takes girl to the most expensive restaurant in town, then drives her back to his mansion, where he showers her with incredible luxury. But in this case the girl is Monica Szabo, a fifty-ish mother of twin daughters (one of whom has a black buzz cut and several body piercings). More important, Monica is a serious and successful, albeit financially struggling, painter. Her first thought upon waking in the bed of B. (she won't divulge his full name until the book's last lines) is that if she allows him to be her patron and Muse, as he offers, she'll betray both her art and her sense of herself. On the morning after her seduction, Monica is not thinking of marriage or the happily-ever-after. She's thinking of what she shares with every woman: "The potential to be called a whore."

That's what is so interesting about Gordon's novel. It's at once romantic and anti-romantic, with Gordon happily wreaking havoc on whatever romantic and artistic convention happens to raise Monica's ire at the moment. The novel has plenty of skimpy lingerie, last minute flights to Paris, dry white wine, and swimming naked in the ocean. But, there is just as much time devoted to Monica's struggles to reconcile the lifestyle B. offers with the one she's always known. Like every main character worth her salt, Monica's conflicted. She worries about mixing art with money and sex. She's suspicious of pleasure.

Too, she's constantly struggling to solve problems of form and craft, to reconcile her own work with the history of painting that precedes her. With B. as her inspiration and model, Monica creates a series based on the idea that the dead Christs portrayed in Renaissance paintings were not dead, just postorgasmic. The weakest part of the novel and it's weakness lies in seeming more orchestrated than the rest of the book occurs when the Religious Right pickets Monica's show, claiming she's disrespecting Christ, and forcing her to do the talk show circuit.

What emerges from Spending is not only the story of a love affair, but the story of an artist. It is that story that provides the depth and conflict not the circumstantial conflict of Hollywood and bodice-ripper romances, but the real, existential conflict experienced by thinking people that makes the book so engaging. Spending seems a lot like Monica's paintings, a lot like the best literary novels: the perfect combination of the cerebral and the sensual.

Reviewed by Laura Wexler.

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