The affair – seduction, desire, heartache – can overturn a life. Stacey May Fowles’s third novel, Infidelity, recounts an affair, but it is also a twisting exploration of that “life,” the one that came before the affair, the life so painful to dismantle because it, too, was built on hope and trust. “Maybe I’m here,” a young woman, Ronnie, tells her married lover, “so I can help you live your life better.”
The man to whom she is speaking is a familiar type: a father, a successful poet and novelist (“The … Charles Stern? Literary god who has won a bunch of awards Charles Stern?”) who has recently taken up the position of writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto’s Massey College. At a party held in his honour (“full of scholars and students and assholes”), Charlie glimpses Ronnie, the caterer’s girlfriend, “Tall and sleek and semi-clad, her hair so shiny…”
Ronnie, on the brink of her own engagement, thinks, “A famous man picked a nobody like her… he was risking an entire life. A livelihood. The love of a wife and child.”
Throughout the novel, point of view flips restlessly between first and third person so that we see both Ronnie and Charlie from within and without. “Charlie loved his wife,” the narrator tells us. Charlie himself confides, “I live in a constant state of discomfort and dissatisfaction, amused by nothing and disappointed by everything.”
As the affair intensifies, their own recklessness both unsettles and excites them. Charlie tells us, “When I write I simply destroy everything I touch.” He keeps a “hand clamped over her mouth” as he touches Ronnie until she comes in his university office, on his desk. Ronnie says Charlie has “a fetish” for her destructive nature, for “breaking things in the name of feeling alive.”
Sex between them is frantic, but there’s a growing awareness that the affair’s stubborn trajectory is toward stability, the very normalcy (“mediocre minivan lives”) they had tried to flee. Ronnie finds herself longing for the ordinary: “Do laundry together.” But what she longs most powerfully for is something else entirely: To be seen not as a good person, but as a fully human person, one for whom loss of control – risk, violence, falsity and sexual submission – has a place, allowing her to know other parts of herself. The qualities that she, and others, deem acceptable, have become too familiar; repetition has distilled into emptiness.
Meanwhile, Charlie is engaged in another kind of infidelity, working on a “a book where a version of Ronnie he had invented and defiled featured heavily.” He begins to avoid his son, who has autism, and his wife, Tamara, who is working 50-hour weeks to support the household. The affair appears to reinvigorate Charlie and his artistic endeavours, and to jump-start his life as a minor celebrity. But it’s Ronnie who first intimates that a deeper transformation may turn out to be illusory: “While your love is a scandal, and has the capacity to wound so many, it’s all so meaningless.”
Now and again, the narrative gives way to dark, intractable questions. Illness and past illness, as well as infertility, hover in Ronnie’s existence. Between trysts with Charlie in offices and hotel rooms, and quiet nights at home with her fiancé, she visits doctors and hospital rooms and submits to tests. At one point, Ronnie refers to her love for Charlie as a “sickness,” a lust that never leaves her. Her public self and her private self feel disturbingly unfaithful to one another, but what if both are honest and necessary? Or to put it another way, what if love and lust naturally belong to different lives?
When these currents sharpened, I felt the writing change – grow angrier, more uneasy, deliberately out-of-key with other parts of the novel. But the loneliness of a young woman facing her own mortality and self-hood never entirely culminates into any kind of reckoning. This part of the novel moved me greatly, as Fowles shows how certain unanswerable questions are continuously set aside, superseded again and again by the distractions of lust and the consolations of love – the passions that triggered these existential questions in the first place.
Fowles writes, “Children love the things that love back,” and this idea, so unadorned, so simple, holds a mirror up to the lovers. Ronnie needs Charlie; Charlie needs Ronnie. Sex and intimacy bring a temporary relief. But the gnawing desire to feel ever more deeply, to submit to a storm of contradictory emotions, never ends. The question curled up in the novel remains: Was it love that allowed this liberation or was it the act of destroying a life they once deemed valuable? Is the hunger that gnaws at us the desire to be loved, or is it the need to show the world what love makes us capable of doing? Fowles handles these questions with a fleeting lightness, a surprising gentleness, revealing a sorrow that threatens to last longer than passion. For Ronnie, the affair is only the beginning.
Madeleine Thien’s most recent novel is Dogs at the Perimeter.