November 13, 2008


Under the Blood Red Moon. By Mina Hepsen. Avon. $13.95.

This Year’s Model. By Carol Alt. Avon. $13.95.

     Pick your unlikely romance. Will it involve London in the 19th century, where vampires are real and rich and handsome and where noble but financially threatened orphans must bend the rules to survive? Or will it focus on New York City today, where the cutthroat world of professional modeling suddenly opens wide to a fresh new face, a young woman who must find her own center and values quickly if she is to make it on her own terms and avoid the descent into depravity that afflicts so many in the profession?

     The first plot outline goes with Under the Blood Red Moon, the first historical romance by Mina Hepsen (a name strongly echoing Mina Harker of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is the pen name of Hande Zapsu, daughter of a Turkish politician). The second outline belongs to This Year’s Model, the first novel by real-life model Carol Alt. Neither book has much of a feeling of believability about it, despite Hepsen’s skill in setting her scenes and Alt’s use of her own experiences in modeling to frame the characters in her novel. Neither of the books is more overwrought than is usual in its genre, but neither stands out from many other books of a similar type.

     In Under the Blood Red Moon, the central characters are Princess Angelica Belanov and her brother, Mikhail, who are orphans with only one surviving relative and who are living off their old family fortune – but are close to losing it. The solution (this being the 19th century and all) is to find a rich husband for Angelica. But Angelica, for all her beauty, has an ability that she regards as a curse: she is a telepath, listening to people’s thoughts whether she wants to or not. This is why she wants to live at a quiet country estate (preferably in the seclusion of its library) – but for proper husband-hunting, as Mikhail points out, she will have to come to the city. And that is where, at an appropriately fabulous ball, Prince Alexander Kourakin turns up. He seems like ideal marriage material, except for a couple of problems: first, he is a vampire; and second, he is a clan leader and has been given the assignment of finding and stopping a rogue vampire named Sergey, who is determined to start a war between vampires and humans. Despite their mutual attraction, the prince and princess realize they must part and forget each other; but of course that is not what happens. The most interesting thing about Under the Blood Red Moon is that its vampires are governed by a Book of Laws, and drinking human blood is decidedly not by the book. In fact, many of the basics of vampire lore – hatred of garlic, inability to move around during daylight – are discarded by Hepsen as she weaves a romance with tinges of the otherworldly rather than a traditional vampires-vs.-humans novel. It is the underlying sexuality of vampirism that Hepsen brings, rather predictably, to the fore: “His lips were soft and hard all at once as they brushed against hers. Her eyes closed gradually, her shoulders losing some of their tension. Alexander recognized her inexperience instantaneously, but the knowledge did nothing to cool his ardor. …It was as if he were kissing for the first time again, the feelings were the strongest he had had in almost two hundred years.” It is obvious where this is going, and after another hundred pages or so, that is just where it goes. There is a twist ending (a rather predictable one), but basically the book ends in the same dramatic-romantic-vampiric fashion in which it began.

     There is something vampiric about the real-world fashion industry, which sucks the liveliness and often the life out of attractive young women in order to turn them into hangers on which to display outlandish and extraordinarily overpriced garments intended purely for the delectation of people who are far too rich to have anything more worthwhile to do with their money. But there is a lot of money in modeling, and (as Carol Alt points out) it is one field where women make much more than men. So it is easy to understand modeling’s attractions to Alt and to her Alt-er ego, Melody Ann Croft, in This Year’s Model. Croft is working her way through college as a waitress when a fashion photographer spots her and insists she ought to be in pictures – high-fashion pictures, that is (although the parallel with movie stars being discovered at what were then called soda fountains is obvious). Alt says this is pretty much how she herself really was discovered – even to the detail that Croft accidentally runs the photographer’s business card through the wash, which Alt says she did with the card of the photographer who brought her into the modeling world. It turns out, at least in This Year’s Model, to be a high-pressure, high-stakes, high-stress world that Melody (renamed Mac for professional purposes, although that seems like an unappealingly androgynous name) initially breaks into smoothly and with considerable ease. But then she has to deal with the rumors, the lies, the day-long photo sessions in uncomfortable poses, the prima donna photographers, the sexual come-ons, the drugs – all the temptations and titillations you would expect from an “inside” book about the field, fiction though it may be. Mac pushes through to success: “The knot in my gut grows tighter, knowing the other models are now watching me on the monitor backstage. …And suddenly something in me relaxes. Suddenly my legs begin to move in slow, easy strides, hips gliding forward. It’s as if I’m floating above the stage, the world around me one big blur of brilliant light.” But she just can’t figure out parts of the business: “Even more frightful are the bisexuals. You can’t tell which way they are going to go and I can’t imagine sleeping with a guy one night who might want to sleep with my brother the next night.” The mixture of fashion, sex, drugs and all the rest eventually leads to predictable heartache for Mac and a greater tragedy for one of the other models – but there is really nothing surprising about that. Or about much else in this straightforward “girl makes good but success comes at a price” story. With or without a background in reality, it comes across simply as a fantasy of the modern world.

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