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Unadulterated (reading) pleasures: The 10 best novels of cheating

July 28, 2010

Lena Olin appears in the movie versions of two great adultery novels: Enemies, A Love Story (above), and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

The fine folks over at NPR, though I do love teasing them about eating brie and driving Volvos, know how to write a snappy headine. Consider Martha Toll’s essay on adultery novels: “One Nightstand, Six Affairs.” As you can see above, I can’t think of anything half as clever. But we can still join the party, can’t we?

Toll extols six contemporary cheating novels, only one of which I’ve read, or, for that matter, even heard of. “It’s a luxury to ride the crest of a character’s emotional life, from the agony of betrayal, to passion’s joys,” she writes.

Among Toll’s recommendations: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simpson (“a lovely, old-fashioned story” about a retired British officer and a Pakistani shopkeeper); The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton (“an edgy debut” from New Zealand); and Paul Auster’s Invisible, another of his lite modernism excursions (and one of the best), this time into brother-sister incest.

Honesty compels me to admit Auster’s novel isn’t strictly about adultery, since the characters aren’t married at the time of the affair (though they are adults, not children), but the view –direct, compassionate –provided here of a primal taboo gives the narrative the voyeuristic thrill of a bloody car wreck. I reviewed Invisible when it came out last year, if you’d like to see what I

Juliet Binoche also appears in film versions of two cheating novels: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (above), and The English Patient.

thought of it at the time.

While we can be grateful for Toll’s recommendations, most of these titles are probably passing diversions, to be forgotten in the ebb and flow of new books. Adultery, however, is eternal — at least in a literary sense. From David and Bathsheba to Lancelot and Guinevere to Othello and Desdemona, illicit love (or suspicion of it) drives some of the very greatest works ever written.

I mean, really, without adultery, how impoverished our literature would be! Take John Updike: All his best novels and stories (Rabbit, Run; Couples; Too Far to Go; Roger’s Version) are about adultery. When he writes about something other than contemporary marriage and its discontents, we get shuddersome literary misadventures like Brazil or Terrorist.

Now that I get to it, I see I will not be able to fulfill the promise of suggesting 10 best adultery novels. There are simply too many

Ralph Fiennes, The English Patient; he's also in The End of the Affair.

excellent ones. Consider: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, arguably the greatest novel ever written; Madame Bovary, by Gustav Flaubert, long my personal favorite; The Scarlett Letter, Hawthorne’s great early American masterpiece, and the bane of high school English classes all over this great land.

Instead, I offer here a few I’ve read with something approaching joy: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin; Diary of an Adulterous Woman, by Curt Leviant; Damage, by Josephine Hart; Justine, by Lawrence Durrell; Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain; The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera; Enemies, A Love Story, by Isaac Bashevis Singer; The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje.

I think I’m blushing! I feel as though I’ve shared some of my heart’s treasures with you. Please be gentle with them — knowing, however, that they will not be gentle in return.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2010 12:13 pm

    Of the novels you’ve named, Chauncey, many of them marvelous, THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING & THE END OF THE AFFAIR & MADAME BOVARY are great works of art and unforgettable. But even so, nothing ever written that I know of can hold the hem of ANNA KARENINA, an absorbing story that many readers can read over and over and always find something new, something enlightening, something that broadens your understanding of what it means to be human and vulnerable and a prisoner to your unrelenting passions. Few would argue with your assessment: it is the greatest novel ever written.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 28, 2010 12:57 pm

      Duff, I laugh with delight at your phrase “nothing ever written that I know of can hold the hem of Anna Karenina….” You have a way with words there, pal. Thanks for weighing in. And I would agree that my other favorites listed here may or may not quite rise to some standard of literary excellence, but I love them all.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 28, 2010 1:01 pm

    Oh, while we’re talking about Russians, let me add: I set the criteria that we are talking about novels here today, but Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog” says almost everything that need ever be said about adultery. It is a very great work of art, and you can read it in about 20 minutes.

    • July 28, 2010 3:03 pm

      Affirmative, Chauncey. I’ve read it and read it and taught it to my students and I own an old black and white film of it, Russian with English subtitles. Gurov and Anna have their own chamber in my heart. Yes, the greatest short story on the theme of adultery. Ah, Chekhov, Chekhov. Did you know that Tolstoy told Chekhov he was a good short story writer, but he ought to give up writing plays? Ain’t that funny!

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        July 28, 2010 10:02 pm

        Obviously Tolstoy wasn’t much of a prophet. Oh. Wait…

  3. John Karwacki permalink
    July 28, 2010 3:32 pm

    Great advice as usual, Chauncey. I have only read a couple of these. I believe “Anna Karenina” has one of my favorite opening lines of all time – amazing. I have pushed “Tender Is the Night” in this blog previously, and do so again today. Fitzgerald seemed to know something about crumbling relationships. As a guy who reads a lot of low brow mysteries, I vote for Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and how many times did Travis Magee get lucky with married women in John MacDonald novels? How about “Love in the Ruins” or “Lancelot” by Walker Percy, a fine southern gentleman who knew a thing or two about wife trouble. Lastly. “The Painted Veil” by W. Somerset Maugham, not my fvorite of his but certainly fits the catagory. Thanks once again for a thought provoking blog – you are the man, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 28, 2010 10:04 pm

      Ah, Walker Percy — excellent suggestion. I’ve read both of these, and can endorse them without reservation. I’ve not read The Painted Veil, but it was made into a decent, if stuffy, movie a couple of years ago.

      You are a man of impressively eclectic tastes, Mr. Karwacki.

  4. rachel permalink
    July 28, 2010 3:39 pm

    I have never read “Anna Karenina” but have wanted to ever since reading “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” I love many books, and many books have changed my tiny little existence but “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” put a big old stamp on it.

    I just finished reading “Invisible” and liked it pretty well. Although I did walk away from it wondering if there is really as much incest going on in the world as literature would have you believe.

    You are right, Chauncey Mabe, where would literature be without adultery?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 28, 2010 10:06 pm

      I first asked myself that question in 1982, when I read Karwacki’s fave, Tender is the Night, and no, I do not believe there is as much incest in the world as there is in literature. No way.

      Unbearable Lightness of Being changed my world, too.

  5. PJ Parrish permalink
    July 29, 2010 10:17 am

    David’s dalliance with Bathsheba in the Bible is a pretty juicy story, what with Bathsheba getting pregnant and David trying to lure her husband Uriah back from the battlefield and back into Bathsheba’s bed so David could claim the kid wasn’t his. (Shades of John Edwards!). The old testament is filled with good “novellas” like this.

  6. Sean permalink
    July 29, 2010 11:11 am

    Remember the stir over that adulterous novel from the ’90s, ‘Damage,’ by British author Josephine Hart? I didn’t read it but I did see a bad movie (with Jeremy Irons) based on it. And I had this impression that the marketing of the book seemed to benefit from Hart being very attractive and photogenic. It was such a culture-for-grownups sensation at the time, kind of like ‘sex lies and videotape’ a few years earlier. But does anybody know if that book turned out actually be any good? To use a piece of your next post, is Hart the kind of writer that gets Man Booker consideration, or is she remembered as basically a romance novelist?

  7. Connie permalink
    July 29, 2010 1:31 pm

    Actually the book “Damage” isn’t bad at all. In fact, it’s good. And I liked the movie, though that may have just been because of Jeremy Irons, who had clearly pumped some iron before shooting.

    Best novel of infidelity? Have to be The English Patient, all due respect to Anna Karenina. That book is magnificent. Also The End of the Affair. And happy to see you mention Justine! I read the whole quartet in high school and was happily mesmerized.

  8. Christine permalink
    November 9, 2011 1:08 pm

    Some great novels about infidelity:
    On the Big White Oak by Corrine Coleman
    Bridges of Madison County

  9. November 5, 2012 1:46 am

    click here Put flowers on the tables when taking pictures. He further argues that Hell is lacking and arguably weak due to its brevity, his responses to the bass fisherman on the fact that it’s not taught in the human soul” p.7. Crockett’s arguments are compelling though it remains to be hit and miss on whether which view is true.

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