Erik Tarloff’s new novel, Tell Me the Truth About Love (Rare Bird Books; 360 pages), is at once a comedy of manners about the not-so-smart set of San Francisco society, a sex farce complete with a mistaken identity subplot that could have come out of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum, and a deeply serious examination of just how rocky the road to romance can be.
Toby Lindeman makes an inherently undignified living as fundraiser for the San Francisco Opera, which helps him support his ex-wife and teenage daughter. But a chance meeting with Amy Baldwin, a sly socialite and businesswoman, at a fundraiser where he is tasked with hitting up plutocrat Bradley Solomon changes the course of his life.
“Are you, like a professional escort?’’ Amy asks him. “Hired to squire a biddy? With God knows what’s expected of you at the end of the evening?’’
For his part, Toby is up to the challenge of the sexually charged banter.
“Is it that obvious?” he responds. “Damn.’’
Always get the last word.
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By the end of the evening, Lindeman has suffered the dual defeat of being rudely brushed off by Solomon and finding out that Baldwin is actually the magnate’s mistress.
Though he is offered a token apology by Solomon at a follow-up meeting, Toby is not quite ready to let it go. “You obviously knew what you were doing,’’ he says. “It was something you chose to do…I’m here hat in hand. But, still, you mustn’t assume my willingness to put up with bullshit is limitless.’’
The exchange is reminiscent of the confrontation between a Clintonesque president and a speech writer who calls him out for sleeping with his girlfriend in Tarloff’s prescient 1998 novel, Face-Time. He’s uniquely attuned to the power differential at play in personal and professional relationships. Class matters—in both senses of the word. (The narcissistic pol defends his misbehavior by comparing himself to…Winston Churchill.)
Toby ends up having a torrid affair with Amy, initially hiding it from Solomon who thinks that because of who he works with, he must be gay. Opera bouffe, indeed.
Tarloff has a knack for bristly close encounters, including a rift with music director Brian Hughes, who offers a bawdy commission about the history of the Castro district to a rock musician without bothering to let higher-ups know. (Indulging in micro-aggressions like calling Toby the “Money Man’’ in social situations doesn’t help matters.) And a timely MeToo subplot about the romantic entanglements of Toby’s daughter takes a surprising turn.
But plot summaries don’t do justice to the ways in which the author gracefully weaves together his intersecting story lines as a vehicle to illustrate larger themes.
The course of modern romance never runs smooth.
Without offering spoilers, let’s just say that Toby and Amy’s sexual passions don’t exempt them from the bumpy, discordant pressures of deciding when, how, and under what circumstances they might commit.
Tarloff takes his book’s title, and epigraph, from W.H. Auden’s poem:
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.
Notwithstanding Shakespeare’s admonition, love may indeed alter, and bend when its alteration finds. But the (admittedly pompous) Polonius had it right, too. “To thine own self be true’’ remains a guiding star—one that the sometimes troubled players in this witty, wise contemporary parable ultimately abide by.
For more information on Bay Area events this month for Erik Tarloff’s new book, visit here.