It should go without saying that this book is part of a trilogy, is headed for the movies and has created a stir in countries where it has already appeared. As one reader put it on Amazon.uk’s website: “This book’s pomposity is unbelievable and the sex is ludicrous. Will sell millions.”
Maestra is the work of L.S. Hilton, who is other wise the British historian Lisa Hilton but wanted to give voice to her inner babe. Hilton has talked up the independence and sexual freedom of her main character, Judith Rashleigh. But hold the phone: Maestra is terribly confused about what constitutes Judith’s idea of a good time. Sometimes she savors her bravado and channels James Bond. More often, she is a sad, status-seeking, increasingly homicidal opportunist/prostitute. “I’ve never met the girl who wasn’t prepared to hawk it when there wasn’t a bona fide billionaire in the room,” Judith confides.
It’s hard to find much escapist fun in a book about a woman whose main attributes are deadly sins. Greed, lust, envy, pride and wrath – she’s got five of them covered, and perhaps even a little gluttony, if you count all the times Hilton lovingly describes the delicacies that slide down her heroine’s gullet. This is meant to make Judith a creature of insatiable appetites, which is meant to be alluring, especially since she keeps herself so saleably slim. (Most men in the book are repellently fat. If they’re rich enough, she services them anyway.)
Maestra opens in a lavish den of sin, where “heavy hems and vicious heels swooped and clacked over the parquet.” Why would vicious heels clack? This kind of question arises constantly, but give the author her odd modifiers. The point is that this scene is replayed verbatim later in the book, and even Judith calls it ridiculous. It’s just a tease to get your attention.
Next, we meet the earlier Judith as a woebegone Cinderella, working at a London auction house. She hates the way her boss treats her. What’s a girl to do? Moonlight at a bar where the women are greeted with jolly cries of “OK, girls, knickers off” by a supervisor who isn’t quite kidding. All she’s supposed to do, Judith says, is to encourage men to buy champagne and listen to their troubles. That’s all. Sure.
Two things kick up the action. Judith catches her daytime boss conducting a scam about the provenance of a painting. (Hilton sounds authoritative about art history and the chicanery of the art world. This part of the book works well.) And she talks one of her bar clients into taking her and a friend to the Riviera. While frolicking there, they overdrug the client’s drink. And off Judith goes into a string of pseudonyms and a life of glamorous crime.
She soon hooks up with a billionaire named Steve, who has a big boat and no sexual appetite. He just wants a good-looking woman he can show off when he goes places. “We were the prizes, the gold made delectably bronzed flesh, Galateas who unfroze at the touch of money,” Judith says about the parasitical women who attach themselves to men like Steve. And she is proud of herself both for landing him and not hanging on.
Women in this book have no real autonomy, even if Judith is in the process of clawing her way toward power. Their only way of supporting themselves is by finagling money out of powerful men. The fact that these guys give them shopping money is considered a wonderful perk by the decorative-girlfriend class. It’s horrifying, not amusing. The same can be said for Judith’s endless inventories of what she’s wearing, right down to the labels on her underwear. It takes 20 different products to get her showered, made up and out her front door.
Judith travels from one elite, touristy spot to another (Portofino, Courcheval, Lake Como), offering readers picture-postcard descriptions of these places. She dutifully ticks off sights, tastes and smells. When she is confronted by someone who knows about her evil deeds, the scene plays out in Paris, with the Place Vendôme, Champs-Élysées, Place de la Concorde and Jardin des Tuileries all worked into the background.
You’ll want to know what the sex scenes are like, since they are one of this book’s main attractions. They’re graphic, with all body parts named, every orifice put to use, and lots of juddering, shuddering, shimmering rapture. Hilton writes more enthusiastically about her male characters’ thrustable organs than she does about their faces – the penises have personality, but the faces are forgettable. Judith gets gymnastic with multiple partners. There are handcuffs. There are straps. You may even learn something new about how oysters affect the digestive system.
But the hot stuff grows repetitive quickly. And it begins to feel obligatory. Excitable as Judith is, she has a limited imagination, and she vents it at regularly timed intervals. By the time Maestra reaches its suspenseful conclusion — three little words, “to be continued” — she seems to be running out of positions. With two books to go.
By L.S. Hilton. 309 pages. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. $27.