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Review: The Change Room by Karen Connelly breaks boundaries

Author Karen Connelly.

The Change Room
Karen Connelly
Random House Canada

The first thing we need to talk about is sex. Lots of sex. Sex between a woman and her husband. Sex between new lovers, both women. Multiorgasmic, potentially orgiastic sex. The Change Room opens up definitions and breaks boundaries, depicting ordinary lives that turn utterly erotic.

The Change Room opens with fortysomething Eliza rushing to her early morning swim. She has a busy, happy life, with little time for herself. She is the co-owner of a floral business, a former chef, a former resident of Lesvos (Greek island famous for producing Sappho and the word "lesbian"), the wife of handsome math professor Andrew, the mother of two boys and the keeper of a big old house in Toronto.

In the pool's change room, she encounters Shar, at first a nameless body Eliza calls "the Amazon." Shar's body is described in great detail: her long limbs, her nipples, her pubic hair. Soon, the women are kissing and fondling. While I wouldn't define the novel as pornographic, this scene has the easy contrivance of a porno plot, in which two slippery women can't help but start screwing the minute they're alone.

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Life in Toronto is icy and filled with tasks and demands. Life inside Shar's apartment is, by comparison, a warm idyll. They drink wine and eat almonds and pomegranates and make love for hours. Eliza's marriage is happy but undersexed – they are busy and middle-aged – and Shar is unattached. She is a happy sex worker, but Eliza doesn't know this. The women find that their first-sight chemistry is a reliable indicator of their compatibility. "Eliza wanted sex that would turn her inside out; turning people inside out was Shar's specialty."

In the background of The Change Room is a list of woes: sexual assault, the possibility of death, conflict in the Middle East. Trauma is not forgotten – even far-off suffering is acknowledged – but sex and pleasure are restorative. Ethical hedonism, Shar calls it: "Sweetness for all, without causing pain to others."

Shar's name is a nod to Scheherazade, and this happens to be the second Toronto upper-middle-class marriage novel I've read in a year in which a white person ends up in a relationship with an Iranian and alludes to One Thousand and One Nights. I don't know that this constitutes a trend, inevitable in a city that Shar calls "Tehranto," or if it is exoticization – the idea of nakedly luxuriating in warm rooms with grapes (any sexy Mediterranean fruit, nut or olive will do) as the most alluring possibility for tight-upper-lipped Canadians, zipped into parkas and hurrying down brutal, windy streets.

Several times I bristled at the depiction of hetero marriage. The women do all the school volunteering; at a dinner party, a friend explains that men "can't organize a bake sale to save our lives." Most of the time their marriage is supportive and happy, but Andrew and Eliza often slip into stereotypical scripts for men and women. Andrew wonders: "Was this a problem most women had, or was it just his wife? … If he told her not to be a nag, she'd be annoyed, but wasn't this nagging?"

These gender imbalances in the contemporary child-producing marriage may have led to an interrogation of the darker side of marriage and motherhood, but The Change Room is mostly focused on lighter things. This is intentional. Connelly, who has been publishing acclaimed novels, poetry and non-fiction in Canada for many years, writes on her website: "My last four books are heartbreakers [exploring] how adults and children survive (and do not survive) violent rupture: war, dictatorial repression, imprisonment, physical and mental abuse by governments and by families." She responded to the burnout this caused by writing The Change Room, which is a warm, refreshing swim on a frigid day.

It's hard to write sex that isn't too pornographic, awkward or scientific-sounding. There's even a Bad Sex in Fiction Award gleefully administered every year. Connelly's sex writing is detailed and frank, never embarrassing and designed, like her description of a cake's flavour, to give pleasure. In the end many forms of sweetness run together: wine, flirtation, intimacy, friendship, nourishment, excitement, satisfaction, music, poetry. What is the meaning of all this sex? Life is short – why not enjoy each other as deeply and as happily as we can? Why not eat the cake?

Liz Harmer's novel The Amateurs will be published by Knopf Canada in 2018.

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