Slow Hands by Lynne Kaufman
(Mira, $23.95, R) ISBN 1-55166-718-5
**
What exactly goes on in San Francisco anyway? Laura Leone’s recent novel, Fallen From Grace, which took place in the Bay Area, featured a male prostitute. Now Lynne Kaufman’s Slow Hands, set in approximately the same location, concerns itself with two sisters who open up a bordello for women. Maybe I should plan a vacation there sometime soon…but I digress. It’s difficult to review Slow Hands, an odd little book that doesn’t quite gel as either erotica or compelling story. Despite its racy plot, the novel hammers home the conventional message that there’s no place like home.

Sisters Sara and Coralee Halprin have barely recovered from their mother’s sudden death when they receive a second shock. Yvonne Halprin had amassed investments worth a million dollars, and she is leaving her fortune to her daughters, with one stipulation. In order to receive the money, they must start a business together. Despite a ten year age difference, the sisters are very close, but they have opposite personalities. Older sister Sara is a successful psychotherapist, wife and mother. Younger sister Coralee is a free spirit who drifts from job to job and man to man. Their mother hoped that the combination of Sara’s “head” and Coralee’s “heart” would lead to a successful and fulfilling business venture. But Yvonne had no idea that her daughters would open an exclusive, scandalous spa for women.

The sisters decide they want to start a business that will be both fun and useful. During their discussions, they acknowledge that most women are stressed out. Sara’s clients, especially those in her therapy group, bemoan the lack of a good man. And so Slow Hands is born - where women can get a massage, Jacuzzi, and sexual satisfaction from a group of Zen Buddhist students, who believe that their mission to bring loving and compassionate service to the world complements the sisters’ goals. With Sara’s group therapy clients as test cases, Slow Hands opens to rave reviews. But all is not perfect in paradise. Sara is afraid to tell her husband Harry the truth, and lets him believe that she is running a boardinghouse. Both Sara and Coralee find themselves attracted to the handsome Englishman they hire to manage the business. And while they have been careful to keep the true purpose of Slow Hands a secret, the Halprin girls risk arrest and jail time if the truth is discovered.

Slow Hands never really takes off, but it never crash lands either. Sara’s first person narration is pleasantly chatty and self-reflective, marred only by an annoying habit of quoting famous sayings. The development of Slow Hands allows Sara to admit that, despite her love for Harry, she wouldn’t mind having some variety in her sex life. She wonders if Slow Hands is a safe way to experiment sexually without technically being unfaithful. In the end, however, marriage and home life wins out. There’s a bit of “ick factor” when Sara considers seducing the man she suspects is sleeping with her sister, and her lack of guilt is puzzling. I believe sisters should share almost everything, but not their men.

I’m giving the novel an R rating primarily because of its subject matter; the sexual encounters at Slow Hands are alluded to rather than explicitly described, and the focus is on what Slow Hands means, not the actual activities taking place behind closed doors. Readers hoping for a titillating read will be disappointed.

I’m married to a psychologist, and I have to dock the novel one heart for Lynne Kaufman’s careless portrayal of the psychotherapy profession. In the novel, Sara casually muses that it might not be a good idea to invite her clients to invest in Slow Hands. In reality, she is engaging in a serious breach of professional ethics that could be grounds for her to lose her license. Also, Sara notes that one of her group clients had a recent failed suicide attempt, but makes no effort to contact the woman prior to their next scheduled therapy group meeting. Pretty insensitive for a therapist.

While its message that women in their 40s still want to feel sexy and desired is a positive one, Slow Hands isn’t a successful enough novel to earn my recommendation. If you want to spend $24 for a very quick 300 pages looking for a little prurient thrill, be my guest, but consider yourself forewarned.

I’m still considering that trip to San Francisco, though.

--Susan Scribner


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