I first heard about this book on the June edition of Shelf Talkers, a series at 49th Shelf by Robert Wiersema where independent book stores get to recommend their choice of Canadian books to readers. Since it came highly recommended, I thought I would give it a try. And, really, who isn’t curious to know what people have to say about infidelity? David Worsley from Words Worth Books calls it one of his favourite Canadian novels of 2013.
Where Fowles excels in Infidelity is in making one care about two flawed (trapped?) people, and even though we can see the car crash coming, it’s impossible to look away.
The beauty of infidelity is that you love so quickly. There is nothing to lose in confessing the enormity of your love. Everything is already lost.
I really enjoyed reading this book. I thought the writing was good and the story was compelling. The characters were not entirely likeable, but I’m pretty sure they’re not meant to be. However, many aspects of them were definitely relatable. They weren’t bad people. But, were they good?
Ronnie (Veronica) is a hairdresser who has been in a relationship with Aaron for 5 years. Aaron is good. He is good for her, takes care of her, and everyone tells her how lucky she is. But Ronnie is tired of trying to be good enough for him.
And, while wisdom, or tradition, suggested that if she was so unhappy she should leave, there was a part of her that believed that holding together their lives with those private thoughts of Charlie, keeping a tolerable stasis that avoided any pain, was actually more generous than blowing the whole thing… his family, her life with Aaron… apart.
The heartbreak of severing she could tolerate. It was the logistics of moving on, the shame of judgment she couldn’t bear.
That she had not regretted it and would likely do it again, and again, and again, if only because having a secret of that magnitude made her feel like she had an identity severed from the life she shared with him. A life that, if she was honest with herself, she could never get comfortable in.
Charlie is a middle-aged writer with a wife and an autistic son. He suffers severely from anxiety, and his domestic situation helps him feel safe. He is not willing to give that up, even for Ronnie.
For so long he had been a disappointment that he didn’t know how to be anything else.
There were moments of clarity, usually caused by films or music or books, moments when he knew that he loved Ronnie, and that nothing should ever matter more than love. But life wasn’t a song or a film or a movie. Life was Tamara and Noah and the very expensive proposition of a divorce and his inability to support himself and the ongoing disappointment that Charlie had become. Life was selling the house and splitting their things and splitting their friends. Life was the infidelity that would be the cause of him never seeing Noah again.
What we really want to know about in a story like this, is how will it end? I’m not going to tell you how it ends, but I will say that the ending is as satisfying as you are going to get in a book about infidelity. There was one aspect of the ending that I thought made it too easy for Ronnie to come to a definite decision, but others may not agree.
… it’s not going to be okay. But it’s going to be beautiful anyway.
My only other complaint about this book is that I thought the characters were given the right combination of personality and situation to make infidelity almost inevitable. It might have been more interesting for me to read about characters who are much less likely to be in that place. But, maybe all of us are in that place. Maybe we are all unstable if the right opportunity presents itself. Also, Ronnie and Charlie were fun to read about.
It seems odd to include this, but there are two chapters in this book that are my favourite, and I don’t feel like I can write this review and leave them out. I would love to quote both of them on here for you, but obviously that would be too much, so you will just have to read them yourselves. Chapter 55 (pg. 186) is Charlie’s rant about the affair and the way he sees it, and chapter 58 (pg. 192) is Ronnie’s. I think they are insightful, honest, and moving. They are worth reading the book for.
Reading through the Goodreads reviews of this book, I couldn’t help but notice all the different messages people were getting from this book. It’s the kind of topic that can mean different things to different people. Also, some people may have a strong reaction to it (good or bad), while others just find it an entertaining read. One thing most people agreed on, though, was how the writing grabbed them. I particularly love the passage about Ronnie and Charlie going through the motions of Christmas (apart, with their own families) found on page 28.
One of the questions in a Goodreads review by Vox stood out for me, in particular: “Do you root for people to be happy with their infidelity? Do you cheer them on?” Good question! Was I rooting for them? I think I was, in a way. Should I have been? I’m not sure. What do you think?
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.
Have a listen to this interview with Shelagh Rogers about Stacey May Fowles’s book Infidelity, in which she talks about how she came up with her idea for the book (it was originally going to be about Charlie’s son, Noah), what she thinks about infidelity, guilt, the pressure of conforming to society, and being more open in our relationships.
There is this overarching narrative of finding one person and embarking on marriage andembarking on monogamy without having a real discussion about it beforehand. Culturally, we’re stuck on this idea that you find this one person and you spend the rest of your life with this one person and that person fulfils all of your needs and no one should question that. And yet people are still cheating. I think writers are often trying to explore the question and trying to find the key to why we keep doing that.”
In the interview, Fowles explains that the theme of her novel is really about the pressure we feel to want certain things from life, but that sometimes we end up wanting something different. It would be nice if we could talk about these things; be more open about our wants and needs, so there isn’t the need to lie to the people we love.
In the introduction to Shelagh Roger’s interview it describes the book as “messy and painful and fascinating to watch”, which is just about right.
This, with all the lies that keep it together, is more truth than you have ever known.
You can learn more about Stacey May Fowles over at her blog. She also includes links to the articles and reviews she writes for The National Post and The Walrus.