Patti Davis' 'Bondage' is painful to read

March 07, 1994|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,Sun Staff Writer

A good, trashy novel has its place. In "Bondage," Patti Davis pushes the limits of trash . . . and she has found them.

Dysfunctional family life has been one of Ms. Davis' favorite subjects, beginning with "The Way I See It," the nonfiction book about her parents, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, and the best-sellers "Home Front," "A House of Secrets" and "Dead Fall."

Her protagonist in "Bondage" won't win any awards for being well-adjusted, either. As a girl, Sara was assaulted by her playmates and narrowly escaped being raped. The attack molds her approach to sexual relationships -- she initiates them, and as soon as she feels that her control is threatened, she ends them.

Her best friend and opposite is Belinda. She falls like a brick for any man who feeds her a line, just as she falls for any self-help philosophy she runs across.

The first problem is that none of the characters, even the supporting cast of Hollywood creeps, is particularly interesting or likable. Every time Ms. Davis threatens to draw meaning from their emotional crises, which usually involve sexual trauma, she trivializes their pain with another breathless sex scene. The sex doesn't elucidate the characters; it just piles up like a grocery list of increasingly bizarre acts.

Here's the deal: Sara, a costume designer, meets Anthony, a trendy director whose "jawline had that chiseled, square shape." After he tells her, "I bet you loved these last few days with the rain. . . . It's a great excuse just to stay by yourself in your own world," she replies, "Jesus, how can you know these things about me? Where did you come from -- inside my head?" Not exactly an advertisement for the psychic hot line.

That's not the first time we're told that Sara feels a powerful connection, as if she's "turning into him." "Wuthering Heights" was more convincing. Nevertheless, plastic Anthony appeals to Sara (though probably not to the typical reader) because, for the first time, she relinquishes control. He ties her up, and that's just the beginning.

We can't go into the details here, but Ms. Davis more than makes up for our reticence. In fact, that's part of the reason the sex gets so dull -- it's more like bad journalism than poetry. It's a porn flick on paper.

There's hope for some really interesting tension when the book introduces Philippe, a New Age guru who's essentially a cult leader. He plays mind games with the vulnerable Belinda, and the intrigue builds. That is, until he turns into just another villain and rapes her, becoming fodder for the tabloids at the center of a sensational trial. Then the novel becomes porn-flick-meets-TV-movie-of-the-week.

When things get absurd, they aren't all bad. There's some fun stuff with an orangutan (yes, an orangutan) on the set of a film on which Sara is working. But at other times, absurd becomes ridiculous, as when an American Indian, wearing an eagle feather and the works, spontaneously analyzes Sara's soul during a chance meeting in the hospital. If Ms. Davis were trying to be ridiculous, it would be amusing. She wasn't.

Some of her asides, in the form of Sara's thoughts, are equally weak. When she leaves the hospital "into the city's thick smog and syrupy air," Sara thinks, "It was one of those days that turn entire families into serial killers . . . " Oh, that explains the homicide rate.

You might have to tie somebody to "Bondage" to get them to stick with it. There's potential for depth in this story, but no matter how hard Ms. Davis tries to dig in all the dirt, she keeps hitting rocks. Simple trash might have worked better than elaborate refuse engineering.


Title: "Bondage"

Author: Patti Davis

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 316 pages, $23

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