The Red by Tiffany Reisz is an erotic journey though art history. It’s a book that pushes the envelope, and one that won’t be for all readers, but one that I found immensely enjoyable. In many ways it reads like an erotic fairytale, complete with an ending that felt a little too convenient.
Mona Lisa St. James promised her mother that she would do anything in her power to save the family art gallery, The Red. Unfortunately, the gallery is half a million dollars in debt.
In true fairytale fashion, a mysterious man named Malcolm appears and offers Mona a million dollars for twelve days of sex. They will have an assignation one day a month over the period of one year. In return he will pay her in art worth a million dollars. Malcolm is handsome, dominant, and almost supernaturally appealing. Mona agrees to his terms.
The rest of the book is set up almost in vignettes, scenes in which Mona and Malcolm play out one of his fantasies, one month at a time.
All of Malcolm’s desires are inspired by famous paintings, and the first one he and Mona reenact is Olympia by Manet.
Mona waits for Malcolm, nude and reclining in bed. The subject of the painting, Olympia, is a sex worker, defiantly staring at the viewer, unabashed by her profession. The Black woman holding the flowers does not feature into their fantasy.
Mona is clearly having sex with Malcolm for financial reasons, but she finds the idea of being his whore intriguing and titillating.
“You do like your whores, don’t you?” she asked.
“I have trouble respecting a woman who gives away what she could sell for good money. Whores are the only women who know their own worth. I mean that.”
“What about male prostitutes?”
“Their clients are generally men as well. I don’t fault anyone who takes a man to the bank before going to bed with him. I wouldn’t let a strange man put his finger in my mouth and whores take far more into their bodies every single night. It’s skilled, brave work. Bless those lasses, they’ve saved my life and damned my soul. What more could I ask for?”
Just like in her Original Sinners series, Reisz subverts the idea of sex work as degrading; instead she empowers the sex worker and applies a logic to it.
As the novel progresses Mona gets drawn deeper and deeper into Malcolm’s fantasies and develops feelings for him, and he for her.
Because this is erotica, much of the book is about Mona’s sexual journey. However, she is never a blushing innocent. She is occasionally shocked by what she enjoys, but she’s no Anastasia Steele tormented and conflicted about the kind of sex she craves. At no point do Mona or Malcolm attribute a desire for kinky sex to a moral failing or any kind of emotional damage.
After a particularly intense BDSM session, Malcolm articulates what Mona is feeling:
“You only love me tonight because of the beating. You understand that, don’t you?”
Before tonight, she would have said “no,” that made no sense, there was no logic to it. He’d done something to her mind as well as her body. By the end of her beating, she couldn’t tell the crop apart from kindness. They were one and the same to her so that every strike of the crop was tender as a kiss and every word of tenderness made her crave the crop.
“Now I understand,” she said, because now she did.
There’s a lot of kink in this book. There’s bondage, sadomasochism, penetration by objections, flogging, group sex, anal sex, and at one point Mona has sex with a minotaur (for realsies). As their scenes together become more vivid, Mona questions whether or not Malcolm is giving her hallucinogens to make these fantasies feel real.
As the book progresses, the mystery and supernatural elements associated with Malcolm become more clear. Weirdly, this was the part I didn’t like. When we finally got the explanation for who Malcolm was and why he sought out Mona, I was disappointed. The fantasy and intrigue surrounding him was so well constructed than any explanation felt disappointing. I just wanted him to be a mysterious, other-worldly fucking machine. I wanted him to stay an enigma who entered Mona’s life every month, even while I acknowledge that’s not great storytelling.
Fans of Reisz’s Original Sinners series will gobble this book up. For those looking for erotica without a ton of emotional angst, The Red is right up your alley. It’s a delightful, wicked fairytale and it’s a ton of fun.