From illicit James Salter to category-defying Jeanette Winterson, here are the best contemporary works about romantic infidelity
Why do we keep coming back to the adultery novel? What is it about infidelity that bears retelling across the centuries, especially now, when the ancient prohibitions against sex outside marriage have all but disappeared? These are questions I asked myself as I was writing Fire Sermon, the story of a married woman’s physical, intellectual and spiritual affair with a married poet.
I’m not sure I have all the answers. However, given the current cultural moment, I believe it’s a crucial time for female artists to write frankly and openly about female sexuality in all its forms: longing, shame, guilt, transgression, ecstasy. The assumption that male writers can have sexually transgressive imaginations while female novelists should be more demure is passé. If we’re going to secure gender equality, we must be allowed the same imaginative expression, on the page, as our male counterparts.
Further, women are bravely speaking out against male abuses of power and sexual coercion in the workplace – but what about sexual coercion and abuse within a marriage? Or within the context of religion, where traditional gender roles and prohibitions against extramarital sex might make it difficult to speak up? Perhaps my protagonist Maggie’s predicament – to stay or not to stay in the marriage – will serve as a platform for discussion.
When I initially drafted this list, I began with the obvious suspects: Anna Karenina, Lady With the Pet Dog, Madame Bovary and The End of the Affair. But these works are always included on lists like this. With these classics taken as read, I’ve listed only contemporary works, all published in my lifetime. I’ve also included a poetry collection and a short story, because I think the compression of these forms is suited to the intensity of the subject matter.
4. The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (2002)
I read this on vacation one summer, in a single sitting, paralysed with the exquisite literary sickness that comes from the combination of aesthetic appreciation on the one hand, and recognition of oneself on the other. An account of a woman’s mental unravelling after her husband leaves her for a much younger woman, the book’s power is in its fearless, closeup details (I can’t think of a more painful animal death scene) and in the ways the narrative subtly implicates the reader: given a certain set of horrific circumstances, I, too, might be capable of this psychic fury.