'Maestra' Is Pure Pulp Madness
When boundaries are broken, they aren't always broken through high-brow means. Today, we all agree that some of the best writing can be found in mysteries and thrillers, but when the genre began, what sustained its development was pulp fiction — and L.S. Hilton's Maestra is pulp fiction for sure.
Young and beautiful, Judith Rashleigh is a junior art expert at a tony London auction house who spends her free time (and most of the first chapter) rutting with abandon at a very posh organized orgy. When a fellow participant mentions that red fruits make a woman "taste delicious," her cool response is "I know." You can almost hear the Fifty Shades of Gray readers queueing up to flip the pages; if only those readers knew they could find sex just as complicated (and sometimes hotter) in Nin or Houellebecq.
But those boundaries aren't the ones being broken, here. As Judith uncovers some bad behavior on her boss Rupert's part and decides to orchestrate a scheme of her own, we're meant to believe that she does so out of rage. What rage? What does she have to be angry about, this cypher of a character who seems to care more about very very expensive clothes (her description of a Balenciaga cocktail dress carries more erotic yearning than most of her sex scenes) and private yachts than sheer anger?
The boundaries Hilton breaks in this first-of-a-trilogy novel involve allowing a female character to act as badly, shallowly, and selfishly as hordes of male characters have for centuries. Judith Rashleigh isn't subtly named, and Hilton isn't deploying a subtle hand anywhere in this story. Her protagonist is a psychopath on the lines of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, but without Gillian Flynn's complex plotting and character analysis.
Hilton's methods have a kind of madness, because Judith — and the women in her circles as she ventures from sex party to Courchevel, Paris boutiques to Portofino — sets feminism back to the Stone Age. Judith acknowledges this, but doesn't fight it; is her acquiescence to the values-skewed bubble of the super-rich meant to convey some kind of simmering rage? Because it doesn't, not one bit. Instead, her louche wanderings will make readers wonder how she ever managed to finish a master's degree in the first place.
The boundaries Hilton breaks in this first-of-a-trilogy novel involve allowing a female character to act as badly, shallowly, and selfishly as hordes of male characters have for centuries.
Which is actually quite funny, because the sections in which Hilton does have Judith involved in art history are strong. One of her heroines is a late-Renaissance painter named Artemisia Gentileschi, the sister of the Gentileschi whose name we all know. Judith has a penchant for Ms. Gentileschi's rendition of Judith slaying Holofernes: "Artemisia was the daughter of a painter, the most brilliant of his apprentices, one of whom raped her while they worked on a commission in Rome. She took him to court and, after being tortured with thumbscrews to prove she was telling the truth, she won her case. Her hands were her future, and she risked them being twisted beyond recovery, so blazingly did she demand justice."
L.S. Hilton is also Lisa Hilton, a well-known and well-published author of historical novels and biographies. She knows her feminist history, so her placement of Judith Rashleigh in a misogynistic milieu isn't due to ignorance. It's calculated, and one direction that calculation might take is financial: The book was sold with a seven-figure advance and a movie is in development.
Ho-hum; been there, seen those hijinks with many an author and series. If Hilton is after money, no one can blame her. However, it would be so interesting if the very smart and clearly savvy writer had something else up her designer sleeve. The last line of Maestra is "To Be Continued." (That's not a spoiler; everyone knows it's a trilogy!) Might we see more of and a different side to Judith's rage? What if she has an amazing endgame?
Hilton has put just enough on the intriguing side of her scales that many readers will keep following Judith's adventures. The real maestra of this novel isn't its main character, but its author.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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