Belinda by Anne Rampling (Arbor House: $17.95)
By now, most aficionados of Anne Rice (that skilled and seductive writer of "The Feast of All Saints," "Vampire Lestat" and several other ornate, baroque and elegant novels) know that she has a second literary identity, Anne Rampling, and even a third, A. N. Roquelaure.
Roquelaure writes straight erotica, Rice prefers at least semi-serious literature, but Rampling attempts a fascinating middle ground between the two. Rampling fans will remember her first, "Exit to Eden," a cheerful novel of sadomasochism and bondage that was divided almost exactly in half. The first half was absolutely in the genre of what we think of as "male fantasy," as full of thrusting, grinding parts as a General Motors factory. Then, after the couple in question fell in love, the story transformed itself into what we think of as "female fantasy"--brass beds in New Orleans, homes with courtyards and clinging vines, hot chocolate and beignets at dawn. Taken altogether, "Exit to Eden" managed to be everybody's fantasy, and was a great success.
Behind the Daydreams
Here, in "Belinda," Anne Rampling/Rice does several things at once with this fantasy genre. She gives us the daydreams but tries to get us to take a look behind the superstructure of those daydreams; past the anonymous moving parts, and the walks on the beach at dawn, to see what it is we really want.
"Belinda" is divided carefully into three parts. The first--told in the first person--has to do with the life of Jeremy Waker, a famous writer and illustrator of children's books. His subjects tend to be nightgown-clad preteen little ladies going up and down Victorian staircases. He works mostly from photographs. He lives alone in a dusty old house crammed top to bottom with antique toys. He's such a best seller that talk shows clamor for him, and he sells a thousand books at one sitting. (Talk about fantasy!)
But Jeremy is desperately lonely. There have been a couple of wives, in the distant past, but no children, and even as he basks in the trappings of success, he knows something's not right with his life. A series of never-to-be-shown paintings of rats and rodents in his studio tells his story: Waker is a man cut off from the workings of his own sexuality, his subconscious, his id; as undeveloped, in some ways, as the preadolescents in his children's books.
Then, guess what? Belinda sails into his life. Just a kid of 15, she knows every amorous art, swills Scotch like a World War I fighter pilot, chain-smokes, wears every kind of goofy costume and lends herself with determined enthusiasm to every erotic fantasy Jeremy dreams up.
Besides the sex, what Jeremy most longs to do is to paint this enfante terrible , and he does; the series of nude studies that becomes, by far, his best work. The painstaking descriptions of this process--Belinda, stark naked except for a Holy Communion veil, or riding boots, or what have you--are the standard erotic stock in trade of this kind of book--were it not that "Belinda" is something else again.
This little kid is a runaway. She's adamant that Jeremy not search for clues to her past, though the reader is tipped off pretty early, through an elegant movie star friend of Jeremy's mom, that a friend of his had a child about 15 years back. Jeremy knows he should cease and desist in his efforts to find out the clues to Belinda's past, but he just can't help himself. He does find out; she leaves him in a rage, but writes him a long letter.
And of course this letter, in its examination of the particulars of her short, unhappy life, gives us a clue to another whole realm of fantasy. Belinda's mother, Bonnie--Southern sleepy instinctual--is an American film star. She has spent time in Europe, a kind of Jean Seberg; she has lived quietly on an island in the Mediterranean while her kid grew up like Topsy among good-natured acquaintances.
Standard Male Fantasy
Then, by a cruel quirk of fate, Belinda's mom was rediscovered, hauled off her island and given a starring role in a nighttime soap opera something like "Dynasty." The director who discovers her falls in love with little Belinda. Her mother, noticing this fairy-tale threat to her own power and beauty, seduces the director and insists on marrying him. He thus gets a standard male fantasy--sleeping with both mother and daughter--but it brings him (and all the others) nothing but grief.