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