Julia Sterling is polished, pert, pretty — and pretty frustrated. Seen more as a patient than a wife by her noted psychologist husband, Julia is used to suppressing her feelings and remaining the poised mannequin at Paul’s side. Their high-rise apartment in Manhattan is lovely, her flowers are lovely . . . but Julia feels anything but lovely inside. In fact, she feels stunted. Broken.
When granted an opportunity to work on a writing project, beautiful and bored Julia cannot resist. Working with Sam, the head of the controversial Butterfield Institute, Julia is exposed to the shocking world of sex therapy: the use of fantasy to work patients through complicated personal issues. Though initially enlisted to write content about the institute’s work, it’s not long before Julia is drawn into the work itself. With some pretty surprising results.
M. J. Rose’s Lip Service is the thinking woman’s erotica. This isn’t raunchy nonsense pinned together with a few weak plot points and vapid characters — a limp excuse for pornography masquerading as literature. No. I’ll be the first to admit I know little about this genre, but Lip Service worked for me as a mild thriller with some naughtiness. And though I’ve never read those-grey-books-which-shall-not-be-named, I have a feeling this one would knock them out of the park. Because, you know, it’s actually decently written.
Julia is interesting. We learn she had some sort of breakdown in college, an event that led to her “romance” with Paul . . . which is really no romance at all. A widower, Paul has a young son whom Julia adores, and the stability he provides is exactly what she needs at a shadowy point in her life. She’s looking for a rock, someone to keep her safe, and she finds it in her new husband: a man who works at keeping her quiet and calm.
That works for Julia . . . for a while. But when she’s introduced to phone sex therapy, she realizes how dull and colorless her life and marriage have become. Devoid of any emotional or physical intimacy with Paul, Julia’s mind is left to wander — and that’s where Sam steps in. As Julia learns more about the Butterfield Institute’s work, she’s a little scared at how invested she becomes in the process. Maybe too invested.
This book surprised me — in a good way. As I mentioned, it has plenty of steamy scenes for romance lovers, but at its core is Julia’s transformation. I really felt for her and hoped she wouldn’t stumble down a bad road, especially when she seems poised to break free of the past.
Originally published in 2000 and reissued by Atria Books, Lip Service can feel a bit outdated at times, just in terms of the technology mentions, but it didn’t really bother me. No doubt bolstered by the success of those-grey-books-which-shall-not-be-named, M.J. Rose’s novel should find a ready audience. And it’s deserving of one.
4 out of 5!