Jennifer Belle writes postmodern Bildungsromans for the 20-something female. Her heroines (who have the kind of childhood where therapists figure at least as prominently as family members do) take on — and are empowered by — ventures no parent or shrink would advise. Her piercing first novel, Going Down, portrayed a young New Yorker making a living as a call girl. In that work (whose protagonist ultimately undergoes a personal catharsis), Belle sketched a memorable set of characters, and made a series of wry observations about the nature of power and control. “I think those dominatrixes are the most submissive of all … you have to be very submissive to piss and shit on a man just because he wants you to.”
In High Maintenance, her latest, Belle continues to scrutinize ways her heroine can and cannot take charge. Here she shifts her focus from the barter of the human body to that of the home. Recently divorced, Liv Kellerman (“26 with no skills or education”) becomes a New York real estate agent and has a bad affair with a certified creep. In the course of the novel, Liv finds and starts to carry a gun, gets seriously bitten by her lover (the creep) and witnesses a bathtub (with a naked girl in it) fall through a coffee shop ceiling. She prospers in her new profession, which genuinely boosts her confidence. We get infrequent, yet loaded, information bytes about her background. For example, that she considered changing her name after reading this about her father in a gossip column: “What famous clothing designer was caught with a transvestite prostitute in Riverside Park and punched out a police officer?”
Liv’s perfectly pitched and dead-funny voice articulates a blend of wisdom and petulance particular to the adult who was never allowed to be a child. She grapples with something even the hippest, most experienced youth must face: growing up. “What,” she asks near the novel’s end, “was the point of being loved as a child if it just petered out in the end?”
E-mail Lynn Crawford at email@example.com.