Vices/Virtues by Beatrice De Soprontu is an interesting piece of contemporary literature that attempts to go inside the minds of its characters and determine what motivates them in their decision making and why they took the course, in life that they did. It is very much a novel of “manners” in the old-fashioned style. Cristela grew up in a conservative, but poor world shrouded in secrecy and mystery. Her mother, a devout Venezuelan Catholic and her father – well, she wasn’t quite sure exactly who her father was. For years Cristela believed her father was from Puerto Rico, the same man, as her elder brother’s father but later on she would discover that not to be the truth and in fact her mother had no idea who her father was. Unsure of her heritage and doubting her place in the world, Cristela lived a double life. During the day she showed apartments, to potential tenants, in a large apartment block but by night she was a dominatrix working in a New York dungeon. Her attempts to keep her two lives completely separate would result in some difficult and at times humorous interactions with her friends and family. The book is essentially a collection of observations and anecdotes of the parade of clients and of staff of the dungeon. An endless line, of both, pass through the building during her time there and Cristela is often surprised by the different motivations people have for their involvement in this business.
I enjoyed Vices/Virtues for two main reasons. Firstly, it was a gentle exploration of what is often seen as the seedy side of society. Author Beatrice DeSoprontu does not bombard us with explicit and/or violent fetishes but introduces many of Cristela’s clients with understanding and compassion, making the reader aware that often fetish is simply a manifestation of something else that may be lacking in a person’s life or indeed a reaction to something that happened to a person earlier in life. She is not critical nor judgemental of her clients, which I found extremely refreshing. Coupled with this was the main character’s long-standing search for herself, her identity and her place in the world. The author’s characters, especially many of those drawn to work in the sex industry, were intelligent, funny and often extremely caring and sympathetic, which is perhaps not what one would expect from a “house of pain.” Secondly, the author eschewed the possibility of sensationalizing and exploiting the sexual nature of the job. Yes, there is explicit content but it is handled with grace, aplomb and sensitivity by the author, giving the tale a “naughty but nice” feel to it. I suspect this was a debut novel from this author and as such, I commend her on finding the right tone, the right style and for hitting all the right notes in this reader’s mind. Vices/Virtues is an excellent and insightful tale, well told.