The Desire Principle
By Saïdeh Pakravan
Belfond, 20 €, pp. 426
Available in French on Amazon.fr
“What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire.”
- Stanley Kunitz
Sarah Bly, a promising young artist, is about to break up with Ryan, her abusive boyfriend, when she set’s eyes on Thaddeus Clark, a senior charismatic Art collector, as he enters a New York Art Gallery where her works are exhibited. As if struck by cupid’s arrow, she seems overwhelmed by an inexplicable chest pain which commands her to leave the varnishing. Although puzzled by her strange behavior, Thaddeus nevertheless purchases two of her paintings. Adamant to promote Sarah and secretly hoping to impress her, he later invites the young painter to a private tour of his own collection where the newly purchased paintings are showcased next to priceless works of art. Shortly after he insists on seeing her in person while introducing Sarah to his inner circle of friends and family.
Eventually they become romantically involved.
Yet in spite of their steamy sexual relationship and mutual intellectual interests, Sarah feigns emotional indifference. Overwhelmed by her own feelings she stubbornly conceals them even after accepting to marry Thaddeus. Introduced to a refined world of privilege, power and affluence, Sarah is trapped by her own insecurity and surrenders to a self-defined “The Desire Principle” which she believes will keep Thaddeus under her spell. Instead she finds herself struggling mental disorder as her disingenuous “theory” built upon secrecy and deceit spins out of control. Her stubbornness will ultimately alienate her friendships, distraught her family, and jeopardize her marriage. Will Sarah finally come to her senses and admit the absurdity of her “Principle”?
Celebrated in an opening quote borrowed from Stanley Kunitz’ poem ‘touch me”, Saideh Pakravan’s romantic novel challenges the notion that “desire, which is the driving force behind all human endeavor, can alone secure love”. To fully experience love and happiness the author believes we need to overcome our fear of loss by embracing life’s imperfections and being truthful about our feelings.
Fear of loss
Sarah develops her “principle” mainly because she fears Thaddeus will stop desiring her. Her insecurity is signaled half-jokingly early in the novel when she asks her parents if “it’s a downhill journey after 35?”. Sarah’s eldest sister, Suzanne, faces similar insecurities when she learns of her husband’s betrayal. Although diametrically opposed in character both sisters are largely responsible for their own misery. Stuck in an abusive relationship the ever discreet Sarah hesitates to break away from Ryan while Suzanne’s vindictive behavior at family gatherings discourage any constructive dialogue with her own husband. Disillusioned with her own sentimental life and her sister’s broken marriage, Sarah’s “Desire Principle” enables her to fulfill her sexual needs while preserving her from any emotional commitment. Her free spirited nymphomaniac aunt Siobhan, who runs a successful web agency, is less insecure as she changes boyfriends as often as she changes clothes. Unlike Sarah, Siobhan is truthful as she flirtatiously teases Thaddeus on “Sarah not deserving him”.
Sarah’s misery is complicated by her ‘lying addiction’ as she struggles through relationships. Her interactions with a supporting cast of colorful characters allow the author to offer views on Sarah’s deceitful behavior: Siobhan mentioned earlier admonishes her to be truthful ; Peter and Rachel, her happily married role model parents, whom she fails to emulate; Sarah’s Psychiatrist Edward Kalanjian torn between his working ethics and compassion for the tearful Sarah who when leaving his office narrowly avoids being unmasked by Thaddeus’ daughter Paula concerned about her surrogate mother’s absence; Thaddeus’ childhood classmate Jennifer fooled by Sarah’s press credentials.
Embracing Life’s imperfections
As a perfectionist painter Sarah likes scrutinizing people’s features, personalities and body language. In contrast to a “loser” like Ryan, Thaddeus appears more like a dashing Richard Gere or a grey haired Terrance Stamp in their prime. She is charmed by his childlike appetite for desserts and cakes but annoyed by his loud laughter which discloses a slight imperfection in his upper lip. Hardly concerned by their age difference she describes him as “very capable” in bed.
Thaddeus on the other hand is alarmed by Sarah’s tendency to violently bite her bloodstained fingernails. In an embarrassing scene at a jewelry she avoids examining her wedding ring. Her insecurity is rooted in her fear of disappointing a twice divorced man used to being surrounded by attractive women as when she catches him flirting with a beautiful blond at a public event.
Sarah’s quest for perfection in her own love life mirrors her quest for harmony as a painter as when she rearranges Thaddeus’ museum or paints the Clark family portrait not without its share of complications. Conversely in seeking Sarah’s unconditional love Thaddeus is reminded of his own mortality. He can endure physical pain and indulge Sarah’s sexual domination over him but he resents moral injury. Hence why he refuses to forgive her once he learns about her “principle”. Likewise, his insistence on seeing her again in a “Kandisnky” inspired wedding dress is aimed at deleting his earliest memory tarnished by Sarah’s “feigning indifference”.
Thus in their quest for perfection both fail to appreciate to the fullest the happiness they share.
Having embarked on an emotional roller coaster, readers will enjoy the epilogue’s surprising twist, however the novel would have benefitted from a more complex plot.
Two parallel conflicts could have been developed to greater dramatic effect. Instead they lead to mundane resolutions at best.
First a conflict of interest within CGI (the Clark family’s financial entity) which leads to a family feud opposing Thaddeus to his younger brother Hugh and his son Daniel. Hugh’s financial intrigues, reminiscent of Gordon Gekko’s in Oliver Stone’s ‘Wall Street’, disappointedly come to an end once he is sent off to London and offered a better job.
Second in digging into Thaddeus past, we learn of his guilt ridden schooldays when, prior to a high school prom, he sexually abused a native American classmate named Jennifer whom he neither loved nor desired. Jennifer now 60, a proud mother of two adult sons as well as a happy grandmother, works as secretary to her dentist husband. When Sarah reveals the extent of Thaddeus’ guilt for what was a ‘rape’ act by the insecure and drunk schoolboy he was then, Jennifer ultimately finds the strength to forgive him.
All’s well that ends well … but such narrative short cuts leave the reader slightly frustrated.
Also the author’s political views do make their way into the novel as when Thaddeus is depicted as the ‘exact opposite of a Donald Trump’ in combining his business acumen with strong philanthropist beliefs. His moral values mirror those shared by rare ‘one-percenters’ such as Warren Buffett, George Soros or Bill Gates.
Alas Pakravan misses the opportunity of offering a more in-depth study on ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed as brilliantly illustrated in Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of Vanities”, the quintessentiel 1980’s classic also set in New York. A study still relevant in today’s America which Donald Trump boastfully claims to want to make ‘Great’ Again …
An astute reader may be amused by hints to the author’s Persian roots as she name-drops the New York based Gallery Shafrazi as amongst the most ‘prestigious of its kind’ or when she depicts how illegally imported Iranian caviar is served at the Monohan’s (a billionaire “who can put ‘ten’ Donald Trumps in his pocket”) annual party as US sanctions against the ‘awful’ clerical regime are being lifted.
However, “The Desire Principle” is first and foremost a love story which enables this talented cosmopolitan author, poet and prolific film critic, to offer fascinating insights into the international arts market and share her vast knowledge on some of its controversial contemporary artists: Damien Hirst, Fiona Rae, Jean-Michel Basquiat or Takashi Murakami to name a few …
The passionate debates between Thaddeus and Sarah on Art History will certainly interest amateurs and experts alike.
What makes this book a page-turner is the honesty, sincerity, and the heart and soul of the characters — they are, in truth, even more pleasantly real than perhaps real human beings.
The elegant prose of the author mirrors both romantic idealism and sexual realism. It reflects the truth that when you love, you also risk getting hurt. Moving, touching, sad, funny, and yes, truly romantic, this beautifully written love story, albeit some of the author’s narrative shortcuts, defies the notion that desire alone is a substitute to real and enduring love.
DARIUS KADIVAR is a freelance journalist and media consultant. He works and lives in Paris, France.