7.11.2010

Belle de Jour: Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl

Well, there's no subtle twist to this book; it's exactly what it promises to be: Belle de Jour: Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl offers a glimpse at a year in the life of a high-class London working girl, though as far as "unlikely" goes, it might be up for debate... perhaps just pleasantly atypical. The original title (or at least the British title) is Belle de Jour: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl and that seems a bit more apt. Thankfully, it is not the kind of diary kept by those who feel the need to document every moment of their day, but rather, Belle writes down snippets -- interesting encounters, conversations, or lists that pop into her head, which are somehow related to her profession or sex in general. While she does go into detail on occasion, I honestly didn't find the sex to be particularly salacious. (Though this book was recommended to me by my very sweet and ladylike roommate, which surprised me a bit.) Perhaps it's the mark of a good sex worker that she can be both detailed and detached. One didn't feel like there was a total lack of intimacy; if anything, her enthusiasm for her work means that she's certainly in the moment, yet Belle is still an intelligent, thinking woman who can step back and assess a situation. When done for the book (and originally, her blog), this means that she can see the truly funny facts of many situations, even if you know she probably didn't laugh at the time. Belle does seem to be a consummate professional.

Quite honestly, I found her life outside of her profession to be the even more fascinating tale. After all, for Belle, prostitution is just a job... though granted, it's a job that frequently impacts her ability to go out with friends on a Saturday night... and her ability to tell the whole truth about her days at work to family or friends, but it is just a job. The thing that makes this particular tale of prostitution unique is the fact that no one is forcing Belle into some kind of sordid lifestyle, fueled by drugs and pimps. After failing to find a decent/interesting job after attending University, she needed to pay rent and almost inadvertently stumbled upon this option, thus allowing her to make a good amount of money doing something she enjoys. Quite frankly, it makes the whole scene practically appealing, particularly as this volume doesn't contain any violent or unpleasant encounters with clients (which would certainly toss in a more somber note to the diary). The worst that happens in Belle's professional life, really, is that she's given a bit of the cold shoulder by her madam after Belle takes an extended holiday and turns down a few client meetings.

So really, work is simple; it's her personal life that can be a bit complicated. Belle tends to not have female friends, but rather, she has a collection of male friends (a group of them are identified as A1, A2, and so on, then collectively referred to as the As), including particular friend, N, who is a bit of a closer friend (and a somewhat stronger personality/presence) as opposed to the As. When the diary begins, Belle also has a boyfriend (referred to as The Boy) who is aware of her chosen profession, but the relationship ends and Belle embarks upon dating (though The Boy does pop back into the narrative once in a while, as exes tend to do). It's Belle's relationships with her male friends that really make the book interesting, for most of the relationships have, at one time, had a sexual element to them. That everyone remains friends and civil is the impressive feature, but it also puts an interesting twist in the dynamics between them, particularly when Belle brings potential suitors along, as these fellows often feel a little possessive and protective of their Belle.

As far as the writing goes, Belle is smart and has an amusing perspective on her industry. It's the insider's look that most people will want and this certainly provides it, though one has to wonder if darker elements were edited out, thus allowing the book to be a sexier read, or if there really weren't any nasty encounters. Honestly, if Belle's experience of the sex industry was the norm, then the world would have much less of a problem with the industry in general, though unfortunately it's just not the case. Belle generally has respectful clients simply looking to satisfy sexual cravings and Belle enjoys sex. She gives the impression of being a generally happy person, pleased with her professional career (though aware that it is a young woman's game) yet not terribly pleased at the secrecy surrounding her life that makes her unable to share certain things with loved ones for a multitude of reasons. When considering the perspective of her friends, it's hard to find fault with her choices. Certain people can be judgmental and naturally, they can be concerned for her safety, but most of the guys in her life seem supportive and Belle herself seems quite level-headed. The book itself doesn't have much of a trajectory, but then, it is a diary. Things just kind of fizzle out and one can hardly insist that there be major plot points and revelations to produce some kind of coherent closure to the year. Reading this on my nook, I was a bit surprised at the abrupt ending, though I'm not sure what else I might demand to make it more satisfying. Some of her encounters with clients are amusing, though on the whole I found myself wishing that I had the income to support Belle's lingerie habit.

Clearly, Belle de Jour is a pseudonym and the book was originally published with the author listed as Anonymous. Originally, there was a blog (http://belledejour-uk.blogspot.com/) kept by an anonymous London call girl and that was the basis for the book. Two "further adventures" sequels were published, too (though only the second one is listed officially as memoir and the third is deemed a fiction even if it was based on real events). Showtime bought the rights and ran a series that lasted two seasons called Secret Diary of a Call Girl, starring Billie Piper. In late 2009, Dr. Brooke Magnanti came forward as the author after reportedly being threatened with exposure by an ex. At the time, people called the anonymity of the author to be one of the great literary questions of the time, with speculation rampant over who might be the real author. It was around the time that Dr. Magnanti stepped forward that I remembered hearing about the book (and, more specifically, remembered the sexy ads for the Showtime series), so I rented the series and then read this at the recommendation of my roommate. Even though the world now knows the name of the woman behind the lingerie, I still think of the writer as Belle.

Ultimately, if you think that reading a short and mildly clever take on being a London call girl is something that might interest you, I think you'll be pleased with the result. I did, however, feel like I was left wanting more and that's not quite the mark of a good call girl (after all, shouldn't she leave you feeling satisfied and, if anything, wanting a repeat performance in the future?), but there's always the sequels. Perhaps I would have been happier with the book if I hadn't seen the Showtime series first, which (obviously) provides more narrative structure and sexier visuals (though the second season features the introduction of another call girl to serve as a friend of Belle's and she's a bit annoying). Still, it was an amusing enough read, even if I was constantly reminding myself that this isn't a typical prostitution story. If nothing else, it's refreshing to see a smart woman writing about sex without an emphasis on eventually getting married and settling down. She's clearly a strong and independent person who's taken control of her life and is making decisions that might not be mainstream, but they seem to have paid off in the end. (Is it possible to use any turn of phrase in writing about prostitution without feeling the need to say "no pun intended"?) I don't feel any real need to read the sequels, but the writing is quick and smart while the book in general is fun and easy (see what I mean?).

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