Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Eros and Thanatos 2003

Julie Hilden
New York
218 pp. $13.00 (US)

Julie Hilden’s debut novel, 3, delves into the increasingly common phenomenon of young couples with open or semi-open marriages. Hilden’s first person narrator, Maya, and her husband Ilan do not turn to this activity through accidental introduction or long-term marriage blues; rather, they enter the somewhat seedy environs of the menage with a sense of the inevitable. On some level, Ilan believes his wife longs for the touch of another woman; Maya on the other hand believes that Ilan is a lovely creature incapable of fidelity. As it turns out they are both correct. Aware of the possible pitfalls of such a relationship, they settle the matter prior to marriage, agreeing to be open but only in the presence and with the consent of the other. What follows is a standard though occasionally rousing (should that be a-rousing?) descent into sensual excess, wherein Maya discovers the limits of her sexuality and Ilan keeps upping the ante in hedonistic and eventually sadomasochistic coinage.

The characters and their dialogue both come across as real-world and human, and the plot development works fine for the most part, except for a nearly unpremeditated suicide and a whizz-bang conclusion that smacks of tacked-on Hollywood cliché. Hilden’s ideas are solid for the most part but her execution of said ideas is weak in terms of craft. The failures of 3 come at base sentence level, and the book is rife with them. Weaknesses and missteps in grammar, punctuation, and generic construction abound—especially in the first quarter of the book. What should have been a brisk read—the language borders on mainstream minimalism, and the subject does carry a fair amount of dynamic attraction—ended up a stumbling exercise, figuratively booting me out of the text hundreds of times. (I’m still trying to figure out what the hell “unspurled” means.) I would like to say that this difficulty was caused by my inability to read an idiosyncratic style but such is not the case. Idiosyncrasy without continuity or rationale is simply unforgivable, and 3 shows what happens in a young writer’s novel when editorial inattentiveness is allowed to reign.  

Given that this novel was issued by Plume, an imprint of the inimitable Penguin, this level of weakness is more than a little disappointing and gives fodder to the common argument that the New York publishing world is a nearsighted and insular leviathan, responsive mainly to pretty, indigenous fish of questionable development. Don’t get me wrong: Hilden has the gleam of talent. Her strong erotic scenes carry the story throughout most of the novel, and generally speaking, her eye for self and character homes in with an uncompromising stare. Unfortunately, her talent resembles that of the promising apprentice or journeyperson. In three, maybe five years, assuming she applies herself to craft and does not rest on her laurels, she may become a writer of significance. As things stand, she and her editor seem to have forgotten that writers must construct sentences that can be properly construed by the intelligent reader. In 3 as in threesomes, confusion is too often the order of the day.

Recommended for those easily satisfied with generic erotica but not for those readers more literarily hungry.