Desire is often ephemeral — it is confusing, fleeting and never fully known. Debut author Lillian Fishman knows this and uses desire’s fluidity as the basis of her novel “Acts of Service.” As one of the most anticipated books of 2022, her novel carefully navigates the entanglement of the sex lives of three New Yorkers of contrasting but highly complementary personalities.
As the novel is motivated primarily by the first-person narration of the self-aware and self-critical introspections of the main character, Eve, the reader is required to attempt to empathize with her. In the beginning of her arc, Eve feels discontent within her relationship and senses she needs something more than the long-term dullness of her girlfriend Romi. Romi lives outside of Eve’s sexual desire; she is doting, respectful and sexually consistent. Though Eve desires it, Romi refuses to shrink Eve into being just an object of desire. To combat this, Eve publishes her nude photos on an online forum, hoping for validation from self-objectification. As written in the closing sentence of the first chapter, against all her better rationales, Eve recognizes her sexuality — in spite of her ethical and moral dilemmas. This creates the first wave of dissonance between her external life and her internal abyss of sexual repression and presents the book’s central fallacy: Rather than exploring the nuances of desire, Fishman instead depicts the oasis of illusory sexual power an allegedly emancipated woman can have within the patriarchy.
To fall into her freedom, Eve resolves to cheat on her girlfriend, messaging a local woman named Olivia on the nude forum. She becomes engulfed in the relationship between Olivia and her partner Nathan, which hinges upon pushing sexual taboos and enabling the freedom of their desires. The couple often explores power dynamics, whether it be physically degrading or verbally disparaging Olivia’s body, or Nathan bringing in another girl to sleep with in front of Olivia’s masochistically voyeuristic eye. Eve is brought in as a third girl, making her very role in the trio’s dynamic one of female competition and comparison. Among the triangulation of male attention, Eve repeatedly claims to long for the attention of Olivia. Olivia is the antithesis of Eve in role and personality, and their innate fight for male validation is a central motivation of their dysfunctional threesome. Olivia is aroused by this competition, whereas Eve both relishes it and wants to break them out into a different world of fantasy — one where only the two girls are together.
Though the novel is nearly entirely confessional and introspective, the reader’s empathy for Eve dissipates early. Due to her pressurized position in the dynamic, Eve follows the recent trend of harsh, unlikable female protagonists — and she may be among the most unlikable in this subgenre. But this is not to say that her character or thoughts were dull and predictable; rather, every single thought and action feels frustratingly razor-edged and seductive. In Eve’s truest fashion, she reflects that, “For the shine of life, I thought, immense teams of participants were required: Men were required, women were required, respect and disrespect were required, love and the lust of hatred were required.” She is not a character that can be limited — she reaches up to grasp every fruit of her desire.
Seductions are the materialized fruits of Eve’s desire: the luxuries given to a woman who is objectified by a man with financial and social power and the ease given to a woman who forgets herself within dominant heterosexual scripts. Despite her constant cognizant whines and contemplations, Eve eats the fruit whenever the opportunity presents itself. To attract objectifying attention, she cheats on her girlfriend repeatedly; to get the elusive girl, she enters a competition of comparison that she was purposely set up to win from the start; to keep the luxuries of being a hot woman on a powerful man’s arm, she intentionally strays from her moral compass. The metaphor of fruit is used intentionally here, due to the unmistakable biblical allusion of Eve’s name representing the original sin of desire.
As potentially the only “moral” redemption for Eve’s actions, she is in a constant internal struggle throughout the novel. She, much like the perceived target audience of young women, is being pushed and pulled by various power sources. Her societal pressures, her sexual desire, Nathan’s seductive power and her desire to be morally “good” are perpetually at odds. While standing on the cliff before jumping fully into the proposed sexual dynamic, Eve asks herself, “Was I still a person who would deny what I felt simply because I disliked it?” This constant dissonance creates tension between herself and every character within the novel, and potentially even more tension between Eve and the reader.
As the final punch, Fishman wraps up her novel by including a sexual misconduct lawsuit against Nathan — one where he clings to his claim of innocence and which Eve treats with nonchalance and apathy. This alleged sexual misconduct feels distasteful in the rhetoric of the modern #MeToo landscape. Eve really only takes consideration of the allegations when she remembers that Nathan is Olivia’s boss, which hangs over her head to further amplify their power dynamic. Additionally, the novel plays upon three harmful stereotypes: the male-obsessed bisexual, the cheating bisexual and a love triangle with two women in competition for a man. These stereotypes build the unlikability of Eve’s character and ultimately destroy her merit. This is another contributor to the overarching disparagement of feminist social and sexual standards.
Despite the messy arcs and dependence upon post-feminist themes, the story contains synapses and shimmers of genuine insight into gendered power, female sexuality and the traditionally marginalized experience of womanhood. Unfortunately, the poignant, memorable lines are overshadowed by the fact they are all in the context of a novel that is either a failed satire or a genuine story of barely anything more than two privileged women idolizing an insufferably powerful man.
Daily Arts Writer Ava Burzycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.