LIP SERVICE

By M.J. Rose

Pocket. 307 pp. $18

By Carolyn Banks, whose most recent novel is a new edition of her first, "Mr. Right." She is at work on an erotic thriller.

Talk about cheap thrills!

For a mere $18, M.J. Rose, the pseudonymous author of "Lip Service," will assume the role of the narrator, Julia, and talk dirty to you. Be patient with her. She's just starting out. In fact, after sharing the first "transcript" for such a conversation with us (she's doing research for a book on the Butterfield Institute, where phone sex is therapy), she recoils: "What kind of woman could say these things to a stranger and not be embarrassed?"

But Julia does soldier on. By the book's end, phone sex has redeemed her. Listening to the tapes of the conversations she's had is listening "to the transformation of a thirty-eight-year-old woman as she discovered the pleasure and power of her sexuality for the first time." Will readers get behind this? Judging from the book's history (far more interesting than the book itself), they already have.

Initially turned down by publishers (so the press info that came with the book tells us), the author of "Lip Service" put her money where her mouth is and turned to the World Wide Web. Tap into www.readlipservice.com and you can even hear M.J. Rose, a k a Melisse Shapiro, read some of it. Picked up by Amazon.com's Advantage program, "Lip Service" became that company's best-selling small-press novel. Next the Doubleday Book Club selected it, as did the Literary Guild. And now Pocket has put it out in hardcover. Which means that a lot of readers are taking this book seriously.

That's the scary part. I went through the readers' comments on both the Amazon and the author's sites and shuddered to read the effusive compliments there. Am I jealous? You bet. But not merely so.

What tweaks me is that "Lip Service" is an entirely paint-by-numbers enterprise. Its every detail seems contrived. Nothing is hinted at; everything is jackhammered home. Its heroine, Julia Sterling, is a figurehead wife. ("I would go home at night with my face frozen into a mask like the masks I collected and hung on my bedroom walls.") Her husband, Paul, the CEO of Fathers in Trouble (FIT), withholds even affection, not to mention sex. ("What I remember about the first time we touched was how very cold his lips were and how my lips couldn't warm them.") As Paul becomes more and more oppressive, the walls of a nearby building that's under construction loom higher and higher, shutting out the precious light that Julia's greenhouse orchids need.

This is pretty heavy, and I don't mean that in any good way. Moments of revelation are handed out freely, kind of like samples in the supermarket. If Julia has a fantasy that involves a man's callused hands, on the very next page she's asking the guy we thought she'd end up with, "Do you have calluses on your hands?" and he's saying, "From all the yard work, sure. Why?"

Oh, there's an attempt to complicate the plot, and I suppose that should be lauded, but it's predictable and short-lived. Even so, as is the author's wont throughout, we are told what the character feels. "I began to shake. This was no fantasy I'd invented to tantalize a man over the phone but an ugly scene involving the police, nasty threats, betrayal and criminal activities." Even the grammar is bad! ("Paul took both Max and I by the arm . . . " What? Did the copy editor get bored and quit reading?)

Was there anything I liked? Well, the fashion advice seemed pretty solid. ("Wearing Armani, the need for complicated accessories or flamboyant jewels disappears.") And, okay, I'll admit, I never grumbled while the phone sex itself was going on. It's pretty titillating, though the scenes are few and far between.

But that's another thing that's wrong with the whole book: It's all talk. Even at the climactic moments, ranting seems to be the most that the novel's characters can muster. ("What do you want from me, Julia? Histrionics? Chest beating? You want me to get as upset as you are? What will that accomplish? You're home now. You're safe. It's over. I'll take care of everything as long as you promise you'll start taking your medication and never disobey me again. All right?")

Gee, I hope "Lip Service" isn't autobiographical.