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EAT ME. By Linda Jaivin . Broadway Books: 242 pp., $20

September 14, 1997|JONATHAN KIRSCH | Jonathan Kirsch is the author of "Harlot By the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible."

Some provocative uses for figs, grapes, strawberries, bananas and cucumbers are suggested in the opening pages of Linda Jaivin's new book, but be warned: "Eat Me" is not a cookbook.

Jaivin is an American journalist with an Asian studies degree who ricocheted around the Pacific Rim before landing in Australia, where she has reinvented herself as an erotic novelist. Now she returns to her native land with a first novel that invites us to tag along with four thirtysomething would-be Spice Girls on a series of erotic adventures in and around Sydney--Australia, that is.

At moments, Jaivin's fruity prose echoes the formulaic erotica of a letter to Penthouse, but her light touch prompts even the steamiest sex scenes to soar into satire. Indeed, "Eat Me" is thoroughly and unrelentingly tongue in cheek. Although Jaivin insists on eroticizing every aspect of ordinary life, the carnal possibilities of food, both literal and metaphorical, are explored with special gusto. When she writes of "the tangle of angel's hair garnishing folds of moist gravlax," she is not thinking of pasta or lox.

"Naughty boy," a woman scolds the store detective she is seducing in the produce section of a supermarket. "Naught as Heavenly Chocolate Cake."

"Not true!" demurs the poor guy as he gamely defends his virtue. "I'm as unsullied as Sara Lee, as pure as buckwheat pasta. I won't--ouch!--participate in your disgusting little game."

But he does, of course, and so do the other sex objects, male and female, who wander into the sights of the four women whose steamy fantasies are celebrated in the pages of "Eat Me": Chantal, a fashion editor; Julia, a photographer; Helen, a feminist literature professor; and Philippa, a journalist and aspiring author.

The organizing principle of the book is the swapping of erotic war stories and sexual fairy tales by each of these women around a table at a hip hangout called Cafe Da Vida. At the very end of "Eat Me," Jaivin cooks up a slight conceit in which the table talk becomes a book within a book, but what really matters in "Eat Me" is the high-spirited and often hilarious chatter.

Lest the sex talk slip into monotony, the dialogue in "Eat Me" is peppered with anecdotes and asides that are meant to flesh out the four women and allow us to see them as more than characters in (or creators of) a sexual fantasy. Helen raises the feminist argument that "if rape is the practice, pornography is the theory" and then debunks it: "What happens when we women write the pornography?"

When Philippa is asked who she fancies, "media-star-wise," she is quick to come up with a list of media flavors of the month, both American and Australian: "John Travolta. Uma Thurman. Flacco. Ernie Dingo. Linda Hunt. Dale from 'Twin Peaks' dressed in his FBI jacket and nothing else." And Jaivin dutifully reminds her readers of the importance of safe sex even as she stokes their fantasies about rough and dirty sex with truck drivers and various other macho strangers.

"I hate condoms," says one of Julia's lovers, and she responds: "And I hate lingering disease and death."

Although Jaivin manages to work up some moments of genuine heat in "Eat Me," she is plainly having too much fun to take any of the sex scenes very seriously. For that reason, her book never sinks into the heavy-breathing tedium that is the flaw of real pornography. Indeed, "Eat Me" is really a high-spirited comedy of manners only thinly veiled as erotica, and what she loves most (and does best) is to evoke a sure sense of four women at loose ends in the fast-paced but directionless '90s.

"Leopard-skin is so five-minutes-ago," gushes Philippa in describing the dress code at last night's sex orgy. "Unless it's white leopard, of course."

Still, Jaivin never loses sight of her self-declared goal, which is to wrench the writing of erotica from its male practitioners, dress it up with style and sly humor and restore it to women. Indeed, she insists that the women in her book achieve the greatest sense of being "powerful and attractive and sluttish" at precisely the moment of their greatest sexual abandon--and, remarkably, Jaivin manages to hold all three thoughts in her mind at the same time.

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