Imagine a novel that combines the unabashed candor, humor, and prurience of Sex and the City with the prostitute-gets-societal-props story line of Fanny Hill. Unfortunately, the closest we come is Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, a debut novel about as fresh as sloppy seconds, based on working-girl-on-hiatus Tracy Quan’s Salon column.
In these journal pages, Quan’s fictional alter ego, Nancy Chan, offers a yearlong glimpse into her double life as a veteran sex worker and a future wife to Matt, a Wall Street M.B.A. Her existence isn’t solely characterized by jaunts with johns—which, as it happens, rarely include intercourse, but do usually involve another girl working in tandem to contrive sapphic scenes. The portrait here is fleshed out with therapy sessions, where Nancy talks about her high-maintenance friends and her ongoing deception of her eager fiancé about her Other Life.
Quan offers little in the way of plot until the end, when she entangles one of Nancy’s high-profile clients in an auction fraud suit. Her busybody sister-in-law-to-be is working on the case as the assistant D.A. and prosecuting attorney. Nancy is terrified that she will find out about her secret career and divulge the news to Matt (who is convinced Nancy is a freelance copy editor with an impressive Prada wardrobe). But that’s not what propels this drawn-out monologue. Rather, Quan’s interest seems to lie in a subversive riff on the Feminine Mystique-era question: Can you become a wife and still pursue a career? Nancy is more inclined to quit Matt than to leave The Life, but she’d prefer living in both worlds, and thrives on the tension brought on by their potential collision: “Am I hooked on having secrets? On getting away with something? . . . Is [Matt] just one of the more emotional rides in a working girl’s erotic Disneyland?”
Nancy isn’t wedded to her profession for the sex—her tricks in upscale hotels are described about as decadently as a desk job in a gray cubicle. Love doesn’t satisfy; her fulfillment is solely derived from “snowing the straight world,” and being fully accepted by it. Nancy boastfully admits, “I was spellbound! By my own respectability!” As a reader, it’s hard not to feel cheap and used when you turn the final page and realize Nancy Chan is nothing more than a two-dimensional, status-conscious opportunist.