The history of marriage is also the history of adultery, and as lives and marriages get longer, monogamy is increasingly being strained. Alain de Botton assures us that everyone marries the wrong person. Dan Savage recommends becoming “monogam-ish.” It often surprises us when someone we love or admire cheats, though it shouldn’t. Monogamy is a slippery term, hardly referring to the common marital situation.
Serial Monogamy, Kate Taylor’s third novel, is built around extramarital affairs. Its contemporary frame story is narrated by Sharon Soleymani, a writer of popular novels. She and her husband, Al, a professor who is a decade older than she is, have young twin daughters and an easy life until their marriage is shaken first by his admission of an affair with a research assistant and then by her diagnosis of breast cancer. With her treatment over and her husband returned to her, Sharon begins to write a serialized novel about Charles Dickens’s affair with the actress Nelly Ternan, which began when Nelly was 18 and Dickens a married 45-year-old father of nine. Sharon tries to imagine how this well-covered affair may have unfolded. She depicts a determined Dickens who somewhat chastely and slowly seduces a naive and uncertain Ternan.
Serial Monogamy, like Taylor’s first novel, Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, combines literary history with contemporary plotlines. Taylor thrives on a lively jumping between timelines and styles. The novel moves easily between from the somewhat snarky first-person narration of Sharon, to Sharon’s third-person narration of Nelly’s story in a subtle period style, to the melancholy reports of two other assumed voices. Many passages are compelling. Catherine Dickens gives several versions of events from her perspective in a series of scenes filled with Victorian details. Catherine reports on steamship travel the United States, and then describes Dickens’ interest in mesmerism: “My husband was quite convinced of his own magnetic powers in the early years of our marriage. He could easily put myself and my sister into a trance.” Moments of double meaning are played up well; Charles Dickens is depicted as a man convinced he has both kinds of magnetism.
In some of the novel’s strongest sections, Dickens tells Nelly a story from what he calls The Arabian Nights. The first version is rosier than the second and both involve a woman kept in a cave against her will. In these exchanges, we see the nature of their relationship, in which he is condescending to her, and in which she appears to be not entirely happily trapped. “I just want to know how she came to be living in the cave,” Nelly says to him. To which he replies: “I was getting to that. Goodness, you are an impatient little thing.” When the two later reflect on their long affair, and later in Nelly’s final remarks on their relationship, the story is moving.
In the contemporary storyline, I wanted something stronger to come through on monogamy and its discontents. Mainly we are reminded throughout the novel that powerful older men are prone to falling for young female protegés, a cliché that wants interrogation. I was hungry for a more detailed exploration of cheating and long marriage. This is lacking in the frame story in part because our narrator, Sharon, is shown to be capable of more penetrating depth about her characters than her familiars. About her editor, she thinks:
“If Jonathan were one of my characters, I would be seeking out the wellspring of his weakness. … The novelist would want to find the true person underneath all that, but in real life, I don’t have much talent for hiding my contempt.”
I was taken out of the story at times by the depiction of academic expertise. Al is a professor specializing in Dickens’s use of One Thousand and One Nights, and Sharon, who was once working on a PhD in Victorian lit, would be unlikely to ignore the question of Orientalism in her work and in Dickens’s, but a consideration of the topic does not arise. For the same reason, I wondered at Sharon’s sentimentality about motherhood, especially regarding how Catherine Dickens felt about having 10 children with Charles.
But these hesitations are minor ones, and Serial Monogamy has lots to say about storytelling. Sharon Soleymani and Charles Dickens both use seductive plot manipulations on their audiences. Are fictions designed to appeal to the masses less admirable than so-called serious literature? Is a great artist allowed to be as human as his characters are, and will we forgive him for it? In its layered stories, Serial Monogamy raises these questions, and, throughout, it, too, seduces the reader.
Liz Harmer’s novel The Amateurs will be published by Knopf Canada in 2017.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: