Each reader has a threshold between “darkly erotic” and “disgustingly creepy” and for me, Flesh Tones irrevocably crossed that line in the first 25 pages. While M.J. Rose’s previous novel, In Fidelity, was one of my guilty pleasures of 2001, her first hardcover release is already on the front porch awaiting the thrift store pickup truck.
In a New York City courtroom, 38 year old Genny Haviland stands accused of murdering her lover, Slade Gabriel. While Genny doesn’t deny contributing to Gabriel’s death, the truth is complex. Twenty years ago, Genny’s father was the successful owner of the Haviland Art Gallery and Gabriel was his most successful artist. Not yet a high school graduate, Genny became passionately involved with Gabriel, even though he was twenty years her senior and married. Despite his claims that Genny banished his eternal loneliness, Gabriel ended their affair when he learned his lover’s real age and her connection to the gallery. But years later, the two reconnected for a brief, doomed affair.
So did Genny kill Gabriel because her obsessive love had turned to hate when his narcissism demanded the ultimate sacrifice? Did Genny’s almost unnaturally close relationship with her father play a role as well? Or did she act out of pure love by putting Gabriel out of his misery when he was faced with the prospect of losing the only thing that mattered to him - his ability to paint?
You may find yourself turning the pages to find out the answer to these questions, but it won’t be because you care about any of the characters. Other than her obsessive love for Gabriel, Genny doesn’t have much of a personality. She is a successful television producer, but her working life is barely alluded to. The twenty years between her affairs with Gabriel are glossed over, so the reader has no opportunity to see her relate to anyone other than Gabriel and her parents. Gabriel is supposed to be a Tragic Artistic Genius but I thought he was just a Big Fat Jerk.
The Oedipal dynamics of Genny’s interactions with her father may titillate some readers, but they disturbed me. Her French mother frequently travels back to her homeland, so during her childhood Genny is often left alone with her father. Their relationship borders on incestual, making Genny’s affair with her father’s client even more creepy. Even when she is on trial, the inappropriate dynamics persist, leaving me to wonder why a 38 year old woman still hasn’t resolved her Oedipal issues. Aren’t there any therapists in the Big Apple?
For an alleged “erotic thriller,” even the sex scenes are uninspired. I couldn’t erase the image of a young girl making love with a man twenty years her senior, and the encounters aren’t sensual, only desperate and sad. The one slightly creative love scene, involving Gabriel’s painting skills, is overblown. And although I’m a confirmed pro-choice advocate, I was disgusted by the way abortion is used to advance the plot.
The courtroom scenes lack authenticity, owing more to Perry Mason than any actual legal proceedings. However, I give M.J. Rose credit for knowing her artwork and the cut-throat New York City art scene. She incisively describes the ongoing conflict between the artist’s need to create art for its own sake, and the gallery owner’s need to make a profit. Too bad the characters that debate this issue are shallow and pretentious.
Compared to In Fidelity, which featured well-developed relationships among the heroine, her ex-husband and their teenaged daughter, Flesh Tones was a major disappointment and a pointless reading experience. The novel left me feeling tainted and depressed. M.J. Rose’s website lists some of her favorite books as Possession: A Romance, Damage and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - all dark, disturbing novels. If you like that type of work, you should go straight to those recommendations and skip Flesh Tones altogether.