Three for three: I’ve read all three of Stacey May Fowles’ novels straight-through.
It just happened.
But although it was true of Be Good and Fear of Fighting, I was prepared to take my time with Infidelity, an emotionally exhausting subject.
But, then, it happened again.
Perhaps it simply comes down to voice.
“They say it takes a lot of nerve to leave someone at the altar. To call it off or just simply not show up. I say that’s bullshit. I say it take a lot more nerve to show up. It takes a lot of nerve to try to do anything that normal.”
And, so, readers know, from the first sentences, that the idea of normal will be scrutinized. (Indeed, that is true, too, of the author’s earlier novels.)
The ways in which meaning is assigned to life’s events.
The questions asked and avoided. The assumptions made.
The accidental and deliberate misunderstandings that underpin relationships.
The carefully constructed fabrications that come to constitute a sense of self.
The first few pages of Infidelity speak directly to readers; the ‘I’ is so sharp and intense that it seems the ‘you’ has no choice but to listen.
And it is, really, about choices. Isn’t it.
But that’s where the narrative takes a turn, into the third-person.
Into Ronnie’s normal life, her life with Aaron.
“Aaron and Ronnie travelled in a circle of friends who lived their lives like they were collecting Monopoly cards. The baby card would simply complete the set. A natural progression that at first would come eventually and then would come immediately. No questions asked. Ronnie was not entirely sure who had made this decision, it was simply one that had happened, that had been expected, and didn’t seem entirely negative, so she has been swept along with it without question.”
And in only a few pages, Ronnie’s life takes another turn.
She meets Charlie.
It’s a familiar theme.
Perhaps even tired.
And everybody knows that it’s bound to get ugly. Particularly for the adulteress.
It messes with your sense of self, shakes your identity to the quick.
In one of Sheila Lambert’s stories in Oh, My Darling, the narrator wonders “When had she stopped being her true self? When had she become this other [woman], who made up lies and slept with her best friend’s husband?”
It’s emotionally exhausting, both highs and lows: contradictory and complex.
In Tap on the Window, one of Linwood Barclay’s characters observes that it’s always “disappointing when the man you’re cheating on your husband with isn’t honest with you”.
Sometimes, it’s even fatal.
In a recent novel by David Bergen, a woman speaking of two classic novels about women in adulterous relationships asks: “‘Well, they do both kill themselves, don’t they?'” (She names the novels, but I am avoiding spoilers.)
And the narrator of Emily Schultz’s The Blondes openly wonders: “Was there ever a female adulterer, or ‘other woman’, who met a desirable fate?”
If, in just a few months of reading, a single reader can come upon so many considerations of infidelity on-the-page, the risk attached to exploring an overdone theme is high.
And, yet, that same proliferation can be seen as evidence of the enduring interest in the subject.
Ronnie, herself, has seen narratives about adultery before she inhabited her own.
“Ronnie had spent much of her adult life wondering longingly about the ‘anatomy of an affair,’ had seen it depicted in movies and on television in all its disastrous glory, but when she was actually in it it all seemed too easy. Calm. And certainly not glamorous.”
And even when she is living her own tale of infidelity, she takes a step back to observe.
“Ronnie knew all about the countless wrongs of infidelity, the guilt that lingered in every moment they spent together, but there was something flattering about being chosen…she knew every moment he spent with her in that hotel room he was risking an entire life. A livelihood. The love of a wife and child. To be picked as a risk was an unbelievable compliment, and although she realized it wasn’t exactly something to be proud of, his decision to see her did make [me] feel special. Beautiful.”
She recognizes the risks, rewards, and saving graces.
“Cheating was of course unacceptable, but their ability to hide it, their kindness in not shaming their partners with their actions, somehow made it justifiable. The covenant of their secret made them grown-up. Made them respectful, empathetic.”
And she weighs out her options.
“And you realize the promise to be good gets you nowhere. Being good gets you unhappy and it gets you lonely and it gets you a life you never wanted in the first place. It gets you loveless. And empty. And numb.”
And finds them wanting.
So, no, the story itself is not fresh. The dynamics in the relationships – between Ronnie (and Aaron) and Charlie (and Tamara) – are familiar and predictable.
But there is something about Stacey May Fowles’ style: bold, arresting, unflinching.
No tired tale here. For her next book, I’ll simply reserve an afternoon.