For some, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac: power to control a partner, to wring pleasure or pain from the other's body at a whim, to submerge her in shame, humiliation, even terror, yet still see her obey. For others, ecstasy can be found only in surrender, in the freedom that comes from opening the self to the lover and holding nothing back. When someone of the first type comes together with someone of the second, their complementary passions can produce a bond of awesome, dangerous strength.
Maya and Ilan have a love like this, pure and fevered, a connection that sets them apart from the world. Ilan's power is borne of knowledge. He sees Maya truly when everyone else quietly ignores her: her rilliance, her vulnerability, the physical and emotional depths of which she is capable. They meet when they are in their late teens, but Ilan has insight and sexual skills beyond his years. He teaches Maya about her capacities, tapping into her need to be mastered even as he molds her into the woman he wants her to be. Thirsty for love, Maya submits eagerly, seduced and transformed by Ilan's focused desire.
Ilan need for Maya is equally intense. He basks in the totality of her devotion. But for him, she is not enough. He needs to prove his mastery by captivating and bedding other women. When Maya discovers him in flagrante, his pain at the possibility of losing her is nearly as great as hers at the betrayal. And so they strike a bargain. Maya agrees that he can have other women - but only if she is present and included. Gratefully, Ilan responds by marrying her.
For a while, it appears that they have found a perfect, if unconventional, solution. Maya finds their kinky games with the women Ilan chooses doubly arousing. Not only is she pleasing him, she finds her own pleasure in the silky, wet flesh of their partners (deliberately selected to resemble her, with the same red hair and slight frame).
Each time Maya acquiesces to Ilan's demands, however, they become crueler and more extreme. Little by little, playful bondage and blindfolds give way to "play" with razor blades and revolvers. Maya begins to understand the darkness edging the blaze of their passion. She senses that if she does not eave Ilan, he will eventually kill her. Still, she is paralyzed, unable to imagine life without him.
The twists of plot that follow are part of the delight and anguish of reading '3'. Maya escapes from Ilan, and yet she can never escape him. I will not reveal the details here, but merely warn that the story is shocking, surprising, and deeply revealing.
Ms. Hilden writes with authority and sensitivity about the darker aspects of sex. She shows clearly how Maya and Ilan's connection, rooted in complementary perversities, becomes an obsession that literally threatens their lives.
Here is Maya speaking, after Ilan is gone:
That first night at home, I let sleep take me very early in the evening. As I become drowsy, watching the light outside the windows fail and fade, it is as if I begin subtly to feel myself disappear.
As I shimmer out, I begin almost to see you, Ilan; the dark bruise-like circles under your eyes start to resolve. I cannot help it; my heart races with a mere glance...Burning, I rise in sleep, like a body jerked upward by invisible strings -- as if in a moment I will levitate. Pleasure runs through me like a tremor, like a seizure, like faith.
This is no ordinary love; it is diabolical and all-consuming. Nor is the sex in '3' of the ordinary variety. An edginess pervades every sex scene, even the most vanilla. The characters are constantly pushing boundaries, and pleasure is always tainted: by fear, by shame, by insecurity.
I do not mean to imply that '3' is not arousing. Ilan and Maya's encounters, on their own or in their contracted threesomes, have a breathless immediacy that pulls the reader into the scene. However, the sex in '3' is always a cipher, a physical manifestation of motivations and conflicts far more tangled than the intermingling bodies. Even as my pulse raced, I was acutely aware of the ambiguities and dangers lurking below the surface.
Ms. Hilden has created a compelling and disturbing novel, one that will haunt you long after you have finished reading, as the vanished Ilan haunts Maya. Weeks after I completed the book, it still colored my thoughts. I suddenly recognized the irony in the title. No matter how many women Ilan brought home for ménages a trois, finally there remained only Ilan and Maya, only two. Or perhaps, in a seductive, frightening and yet starkly true sense, one.
I first read '3' six or seven years ago. The review above dates from that first reading. The book has been reprinted (if you can use that term for an ebook) by Constable and Robinson as part of their Modern Erotic Classics series, which includes other favorites of mine such as Neptune & Surf by Marilyn Jaye Lewis, Meeting the Master by Elissa Wald, and Remittance Girl's Beautiful Losers. I re-read the book with mixed trepidation and curiosity (and without consulting my old review first). I remembered the dark eroticism of the book, but not the plot details, and I wondered whether my reactions, after more than half a decade of reading and writing erotica, would have changed.
This time around, I found myself more aware of the undercurrent of violence that suffuses the book and less tolerant of Maya's inability to extricate herself from Ilan's influence. Although ultimately she proves strong enough to save herself, I found myself losing patience with her devotion to her cruel lover. The first time through, also, I was as fascinated and aroused by Ilan as she is, identifying him, perhaps, with my own master. However, on this reading, Ilan's seductiveness was offset by his manipulative selfishness. I saw how severely damaged he is and found it more difficult to believe in the incandescent love the two appear to share at the beginning of the book. Perhaps I have become more cynical or more jaded, less starry-eyed about the redemptive power of BDSM.
With more writing experience under my belt, I was also acutely conscious of Ms. Hilden's considerable craft. For instance, I noticed that '3' is divided into three parts, which fit together like a cleverly designed puzzle. I probably missed the foreshadowing the first time around, swept away by vicarious lust, but upon this reading I realized how deliberately each detail in the story is arranged to heighten the emotional effect. I admired the language too, Maya's distinctive voice is simultaneously crazed and literate, desperate and analytical, and (despite my annoyance with her) eminently believable. After all, there are many women who die at the hands of their abusive partners, bound to them by some twisted sense of devotion.
This new Constable and Robinson imprint sounds exciting. However, I must warn readers that the ebook I received (which I believe is as-published, not an ARC) had serious format problems. Many pages contained instances of weirdly garbled text. My theory is that the manuscript was created by scanning the original print volume and then applying Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to produce the digital version. This procedure typically produces many errors (this is where Google's CAPTCHA strings come from) which must be corrected via manual editing. Obviously these corrections did not happen, at least in some cases, with this book.
In addition, the font size changes dramatically at the start of Part 3, becoming so large that there are only four or five words per line. There did not seem to be a way to change this in the PDF version I read.
As an author myself, I feel some sympathy with Ms. Hilden. '3' is a compelling book, probably deserving the appellation of “modern erotic classic”. It is unfortunate that the publishers did not make the effort to present the novel in as clean and readable form as the original.
When a suicide appears in the first few chapters of a book, one expects death, or at least violence, to show up before the end. In the case of Julie Hilden's novella The Film Student and Me, the victim is a female photographer whose erotically themed work adorns the walls of eponymous film student Jared Smithson's palatial and barren penthouse apartment.
Most of the Woodman photos are nudes of Francesca herself or of other women, and I find them powerfully erotic and powerfully disturbing. Just like Jared. No wonder he chose them. There's a darkness, a sadness, in these photos, and in him.
I don't know what to make of the photos where the women's faces are obscured or blurred, while their bodies are clearly shown. They are a strange mix of disturbing and dangerous and arousing, all at once.
I worry for a moment about the emphasis of bodies over faces. These seem to be the only pieces of art he owns, and thus an important clue to who he really is.
And in looking at these photos, I think I have been duly warned as to what I am in for. Something disturbing. Something sexual. Something where my body will be the focus, but in a dangerous, forbidding way.
Even without having read Ms. Hilden's chillingly erotic novel 3, (which I reviewed for Erotica Revealed a few months ago) you can't help but catch the sense of anxiety here, the threat lurking beneath the surface, the imminence of terror and pain. These emotions might trigger enough discomfort that you stop reading, though more likely, you'll persevere, fascinated by the tangled connections between sex and evil, drawn (as I am) by that promise of madness.
In The Film Student, however, the author does not fulfill this promise. What begins as a trip to the dark side of desire fizzles out into a happy ending that's both conventional and implausible, given the early chapters of the book.
Let me back up and introduce the characters and the plot. Rebecca, the narrator, lives the perfect life, or so she believes. Married to a wealthy, dynamic financier, with two lovely and talented preteen daughters, she has traded her youthful dreams of a PhD for comfort and security. True, the physical bond between her and her husband has more or less disappeared, but she tells herself that this is a natural consequence of age and familiarity, and that they still love each other.
This fantasy of satisfaction crumbles when she discovers her husband is having a passionate affair with a much younger colleague. Stunned at first, Rebecca decides to respond by taking a young lover of her own. She wants to avoid a divorce at all costs, out of concern for her children, but she figures that she deserves some extra-curricular fun.
At first, she steers her own sexual journey, donning revealing clothing for the first time in her life, basking in the masculine attention she attracts, flirting with the men who notice her and considering, almost clinically, which one she should select for her affair. Then she meets Jared in the NYU library. Almost immediately she gives him control over her body and her pleasure – as he invites her to do. She's frightened of the self-involved, amoral film student, but irresistibly attracted as well. Despite her better judgment, she finds herself obeying his every whim, even those that involve pain, humiliation, and the risk of exposure. He rewards her with pleasure beyond anything she's ever imagined.
Who could give up this kind of pleasure, pleasure that's so intensified by the waiting that it is almost unbearable, that it's almost pain. A delicious kind of pain, but pain nevertheless.
For this pleasure many sacrifices would be made, and many moral codes broken.
I'm afraid I found Rebecca superficial and unconvincing. She claims that her girls mean everything to her, yet manages to completely forget them once she's in Jared's sway. She talks about how frightened she is by her lover's extreme demands, yet she comes back again and again. Finally, despite her avowed addiction to the film student, at the end of the tale (spoiler alert), she walks away from the supposedly life-changing relationship with scarcely a second thought.
Jared, on the other hand, managed to fascinate me nearly as much as he does the other women in his life. Orphaned by his parents' car crash (rumored to be due to carnal activities while they were driving), he grew up wild, buying his way out of trouble – especially sexual trouble. By his teens he was already expert at getting females to do whatever he wanted. Early in the book, he tells Rebecca the story of Krista and Belinda, two girls at school whom he turned into his sexual slaves. They hated one another, but they roomed together so that when one was with Jared, the other would know. Years later, they still come when he calls them.
Jared's a bit insane, demanding and irrational, damaged and lonely, but inordinately proud of his phenomenal erotic abilities. When he shares his cautionary tale of Krista's and Belinda's degradation, he's both warning Rebecca and tempting her.
“This is what I do, Rebecca. It's the thing I'm best at in the whole, entire world: seducing women. There's a million things I'm terrible at, believe me. I suck at sports and I'm only okay at school. A big donation got me into NYU film. But when it comes to seduction, I'm a genius.”
To be the focus of that sort of confident power, especially when backed up by knowledge and intuition, can be intoxicating. One would do anything, risk anything, for the experience. And after Krista and Belinda's terrifying story, after the foreshadowing photos, Ms. Hilden had me believing that Jared truly was dangerous.
In fact, the prophesied violence never appears. The scenarios Jared orchestrates to push Rebecca's limits are moderately transgressive, but have none of the life-threatening quality of Ilan's games in 3. What begins as an exploration of power and surrender turns into a love story. And finally, abandoned, Jared simply disappears from the narrative.
I don't buy it.
The darkness is real, at the beginning of this tale. By the end, it has gone underground, buried under romantic platitudes and feminist rhetoric. A reviewer should not, perhaps, speculate about an author's intentions or inner state, but I can't help thinking that with this book, Ms. Hinden started out to write something like 3, something vital and raw, vicious and seductive, and got scared – whether personally, or about the book's marketability. I don't know the history of The Film Student and Me, but both the language and the structure suggest that it was written before 3, which reads like a more mature work. On the other hand, it's possible that this novella is in some sense a sequel, cleansed and brightened to appeal to a wider audience.
The Film Student and Me is far better written than many of the erotica titles I review. It has flashes of brilliance and truth. In the end, though, I was disappointed that the author did not follow through on her promises.