Sunday, 23 June 2013

Review: The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker

I was sent, far too long ago considering the amount of time it's taken me to get around to writing this, a copy of The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker by Suzanne Portnoy, on the condition that I reviewed it. I haven't done many book reviews (as ILB) before, but here goes, anyway.

This is a republished version; the book originally came out in 2006. Although a Wikipedia article compares it to The Sexual Life of Catherine M, in my opinion, it may as well compare it to any of the other erotic memoirs there are out there. Because that's what it is. As entertaining a genre as it is (and it's what got me into doing this, after all), most erotic memoirs follow a formula: a largely chronologically accurate recount of a life (often a female one) in which lots of sex occurs, with varying amounts of graphic detail when there is actual sexual contact. Sometimes there's a resolution... sometimes not. And that's basically it.

From the cover of the book, it looks just like what you'd expect from any erotic memoir: a pithy quite of recommendation from Cosmopolitan, that bastion of highbrow journalism, and a subtitle that contains the phrase "intimate adventures". This isn't the only book to use that phrase: maybe you've heard of this one? Or maybe even this one? It's been done, basically. At least it's not another Fifty Shades of Grey knock-off.

So what makes this book any different from all the other sex memoirs I've read? Well, thankfully, it is very well-written. It's not difficult to get into - not that it's in the style of Simple English Wikipedia, but it's accessible and easy to read. Lots of short sentences and an incredibly swift pace (at times heading between "too fast" and "breakneck" via "mushrooms in Super Mario Kart") take you through her story, which lurches between various escapades - mostly in and around London and involving an almost exponential number of men. 

Sex is described in a blasé, blow-by-blow fashion, with simple phrases such as "he slips his cock inside me" (tense changes throughout the book, both present and past, which keeps the action interesting enough). It's difficult to describe sex sometimes without sounding too clichéd - some of the worst erotica I've read, not to mention real-life sexual encounters, reads like lacklustre cybersex - and I know from my own efforts that it's hard to find enough similes or metaphors if you're going to use them. Portnoy doesn't use any, which can be refreshing, although after 4,174,401 times the word "cock" does start to lose its effect a little.

Portnoy charts a journey lasting a number of years, skidding through divorce, one-off relationships, casual and not-so-casual sex, long-term and short-term boyfriends, affairs both local and intercontinental, loss of a close one, holidays from hell and something or another to do with a baker. (Butchers aren't mentioned... to my immense relief.) Because of the amount of things to pack into a book lasting 218 pages, the speed does help. And you can't claim it's repetitive or boring, due to the variation between the men that Portnoy chooses to write about (although it's implied that she's had more during various points). So there's that.

The problem I have with this book (and it's a pervasive one) is that, to the untrained eye, Portnoy's point of view with regard to men seems incredibly shallow. I've met Suzanne Portnoy recently - at this event, in fact - and she's genuinely a really nice person. However, if you didn't know that, you may get a different idea from this book. She makes it apparent that all the men she meets for sex are attractive, and often in the "traditional" (dumb) sense: muscular, tall, beefy and in possession of large penes. 

Example: at one point she describes a large man in a Jacuzzi as looking like "a laughing Buddha, [with] blubber around his neck and flabby arms" - which, apart from anything else, made me feel insecure about my own body. The same paragraph goes on to describe a "slim, muscular and hot" man with "fantastic biceps" and a "sculpted chest". Do you see where I'm coming from when I say she sounds a little shallow? Attractive people is one thing, but continuous musclemen - which may not be the reality, but it seems so - grates on me a little more than it should.

So would I recommend this book? Well, it is worth a read, if you can handle the speedy pace of her life, the large number of sex partners and take the preference for the ripped archetype of man with a pinch of salt. It's written with a keen eye and a dash of humour, which is very pleasing, and Portnoy is in her forties, which also makes a change from other sex memoirs, which tend to have been written by women in their twenties and thirties. Nevertheless, having said this, there isn't too much in this one to differentiate it from a lot of other sex memoirs out there. It's a good book, but it doesn't really stand out too much... particularly if you've read other books in the genre, as I have.

If you haven't read a sex memoir before, this would be a good one to start with. But it does at points get frighteningly unrealistic, when you consider how many men Portnoy picks up with incredible ease. I've read lots of them, and with contenders such as Loose Girl, Belle de Jour's first two and the aforementioned Sexual Life of Catherine M, I just can't say The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker is the best.

In the words of the immortal Roy Walker: "it's good, but it's not right."


cammies on the floor said...

As a female with a lot of sexual partners under her belt, and well as her sister, it doesn't matter what you look like as a female. Sex is easy to obtain, doesn't matter what the male looks like, regardless of how ugly a female is. If you have a vagina, you can get laid easily, by truly hot men, even looking like Buddha.

Innocent Loverboy said...

I agree.