“My books aren’t romances per se; they don’t even necessarily feature happy endings any more, they just conclude with hopeful moments that allow the reader to decide whether widows have the strength to go on or divorced dads find love for a second time.”
And there is nothing romantic about the idea of serial monogamy. One cannot focus on the episodes of falling-in-love without being aware of the falling-out-of-love episodes sandwiched between them.
So, here, Sharon is discussing her own novels at the beginning of Serial Monogamy, but readers already know about her cancer diagnossis and are wondering ahead as to whether Kate Taylor’s novel will have a happy ending.
And, yet, romance is not the point of this novel. Neither the ending, nor its happiness.
But, rather, the series of episodes, the act of the sequence.
Sharon has a new writing gig which brings this to the forefront of the novel. In a bid to revitalize print newspaper, she has been contracted for a serialization, a series of pieces about Charles Dickens.
Known for the resounding success of his serialized novels, Dickens seems the perfect choice for her subject. Nonetheless, Sharon has just discovered that her husband, a professor, has entered a relationship with one of his students, and he has determined to leave his marriage to pursue a life with this younger woman.
So Sharon is suddenly less enamoured with Dickens as a successful writer and more interested in Nelly Ternan, the woman with whom Dickens betrayed his wife (Catherine).
When readers meet Sharon, however, she fully inhabits the role of wife and mother (to two young girls). She is not Nelly, here; rather, she is Catherine. But it’s Nelly’s voice she inhabits on the page for the serialization.
And, no, this isn’t what the newspaper editors were expecting. Anymore than Sharon was expecting to learn that Al was cheating. Expectations and reality: it’s the gap between which is so often problematic. In all kinds of relationships.
As she moves through her cancer treatment and negotiates her shifting identity (Al leaves but returns to care for her during treatment), Sharon is bolstered by her writing. It heals her in a way which she finds difficult to describe, provides something essential which she currently lacks.
Writing the serial and inhabiting the role of mistress on the page brings new levels of understanding regarding her marriage, but also to the complicated machinations of the pursuer and pursued, beyond the context of a marriage.
(Kate Taylor calls out Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman and Lillian Nayder’s The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth as key sources for her writing. Readers of Serial Monogamy will be intrigued enough to want to follow up, but need not. This work stands alone.)
In fact, as she works through the sequence of pieces, she inhabits all the roles. As their writer, she knows each character intimately and understands their motivations. This is an act of compassion on the page.
As such, there is a delicious sense of twinned control and chaos in the work. Readers are aware from the start that the novel will be preoccupied with unravelling. First, Sharon’s marriage is severed and Al moves out. Then, the first serial installment puts Nelly and her mother on a train, which goes off the tracks.
There are many parallels between the installments (and the present-day segments quickly adopt a rhythm which makes them seem to be installments as well). Many, as with the first, are subtle but immediately recognizable. (Charles was on the train, part of the derailment, but he moves off-stage almost immediately, just as Al is part of the narrative immediately, but at a distance.)
Underneath, there is a consistent sense of tension and uncertainty.
“Looks unsafe,” agreed her husband.
“But just imagine the view if you did manage it,” Mr. Dickens encouraged.
Here, in the Dickens installment, the characters are discussing the view from a damaged staircase in the Conisbrough Castle, but this scene follows one in the present-day, in which Sharon and her husband take their daughters to the the Scarborough Bluffs, approach the edge and marvel at the view beneath.
Later, when Nelly asks Charles Dickens about the progress he is making on his French novel, he speaks of his challenges.
“Yes, and also that we can’t fully know other people. We only know ourselves. He is a man who has been imprisoned. That is all we can see of him.”
Not only does this theme suit Serial Monogamy as a whole, but the scene follows one in the present-day in which Sharon remembers glimpsing Al at a party and, just for a moment, not recognizing him as her husband, but seeing him as a stranger.
“I felt so torn between my two duties: Did you ever suffer those moments where your husband seemed to pull you away from your children?” Here, Nelly is pondering Charles’ desire that she leave her children behind to travel to America with him, and this parallels Sharon’s sense of being pulled between her writing and Al’s desire that she dedicate more of herself to their marriage and less to her work.
“Marriage, in my experience, is full of conversations you never manage to finish.”
If conversations remain unfinished, Kate Taylor is acutely aware of the importance of leaving some stories unfinished as well. She directly refers to the tales in the Arabian Nights in which Scheherazade leaves her tale incomplete to save her life (the King must spare her in order to hear the end of the tale the following evening).
Storytelling (Scheherazade’s, Charles Dickens’, Sharon’s, Kate Taylor’s) is of vital importance. Stories keep the world in order. When life is disorderly, stories can write things back into their proper places. (Or, at least, manageable places.) Just as Scheherazade saves her life by telling stories, Sharon has hope that she can save her life by writing them. But her narrative ends when the serial ends, so Sharon’s story is ultimately unfinished as well.
Charles Dickens plays at retelling part of the Arabian Nights to Nelly, and Sharon plays at retelling Dickens’ experience of love with his wife and his mistress. The 19th-century and 21st-century narratives are equally engaging and tumble together like folks caught in a train wreck, “like gumdrops at the bottom of a paper bag”.
Perhaps that is the point, then. And not only the act of the sequence. But the art of the sequence.