Flesh Tones

by M.J. Rose

Published by Ballantine Books

304 pages, 2002

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Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Sometimes in Flesh Tones, it's difficult to tell if we're dealing with a life-consuming obsession or an epic love story, viewed from reverse with the tragedy already unfolded. After a while, though, you realize it doesn't matter. The story is well enough told, the characters sufficiently real and their situations compellingly believable that the root of those characters' follies is of less concern than following the story itself.

Flesh Tones is Wired columnist and e-book activist M.J. Rose's third novel. It is also quite easily her best. Sometimes in 1998's Lip Service and 2001's In Fidelity you got the feeling that the author was better than the material she'd chosen to work with. That these two were waterwing novels as the author tested her abilities and determined her direction. Flesh Tones holds none of Rose's earlier hesitancy; she comes to this work with a journeyman's knowledge of her craft and the result is delicious.

A suspense novel set in New York's art community, as Flesh Tones opens we discover that the narrator, 38-year-old Genny Haviland, is on trial for the murder of her lover, the internationally known artist Slade Gabriel.

But the female members of the jury will understand why I am numb. They will recognize me as just another woman who has loved a man too much. There are so many of us -- not proud that we put a man first, of the sacrifices we made or of the prices we paid -- but we know that if we had to do it over we would not do it any differently.

The evidence is damning: several prescriptions of Seconal filled in Genny's name. Her fingerprints are on the vials, as well as on the plastic bag found over Gabriel's head, with one of Genny's hairs caught on the twine used to bind it around his throat. But was it a murder of passion, as the prosecution contends? Or an assisted suicide as the defense insists? Or are there other, even less savory, scenarios possible? Ones that will involve Genny's whole family and the reputation of the art business along with them?

The story unfolds in flashbacks, brought on by the various witnesses called to testify and other events connected with the trial. This is not a new device, but Rose uses it beautifully, the present day events segueing elegantly into flashbacks, some of them 20 years earlier when Genny and Gabriel -- then 17 and 37, respectively -- first connected.

Genny's father owns an important gallery and when Gabriel joins his stable, the artist assumes the attractive young woman assigned to assist him is nothing more than an employee. When they become lovers, Genny doesn't do anything to correct his assumptions about her identity or her age: an omission that leads to a predictably dire result when she is, of course, found out. They break up after a summer that Genny finds life-altering. She gets on with her life, but the texture of its course has been subtly altered:

I'd built a life -- not admitting I'd built it on top of a shattered one. I'd learned my lesson about the kind of passion Gabriel and I had shared. No different than any narcotic, it brought both euphoria and destruction. I preferred living mid-range; no highs, no lows. And I swore that if he ever did come back to me, I'd keep my word and send him away.

Which, obviously, does not happen when, almost 20 years later Gabriel and Genny's father are in an accident. Though Genny's father is only mildly hurt, Gabriel's injuries are more serious and -- despite the vows she made to herself -- the two old lovers are reconnected and the flame easily rekindled.

But Flesh Tones is a suspense novel. To give away any more of the plot would risk killing said suspense, something Rose herself never does. The reader slides between thinking that, as the prosecuting attorney contends, Genny killed her lover intentionally, then, just as you come to think the character is incapable of such a thing, you go back to thinking she might be guilty, after all. And so on. At times you even wonder: could both be true? Could neither? Rose's conclusion, however, is satisfying and leaves little room for doubt.

Flesh Tones works on all levels. Rose unfolds her courtroom drama with precision, from the lawyer's opening remarks, through teary witnesses and vicious cries of "Objection!" from both sides. Flesh Tones' characters are colorful, breathing creations. The passionate, charismatic Slade Gabriel sweeping the impressionable -- and precocious -- 17-year-old Genny quite literally off her feet. Gabriel's evolving art almost becomes another character, and it is perhaps this element that really sets Flesh Tones apart. Rose obviously has more than a passing understanding of art and the world that spawns it and her generosity at sharing this passion is noted and appreciated:

Don't focus -- let your eyes roam around the canvas. Fill your eyes with the composition. Can you make it out? It's a night garden of blues, purples and greens; tangled confused and lonely. ... Gabriel had done more than get the flesh tones right -- the man's skin radiated vitality, the woman's shone with sensuality. She was silk, he was rope. You wanted to reach out and touch them. You understood why they were touching each other.

If you're thinking about books to read at the cottage or the beach this summer, Flesh Tones should go near the top of the pile. It's the type of novel most appropriate to beach basking because it's so hard to put down. | May 2002


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Blue Murder, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.