Friday, February 15, 2013

Adultery by Richard B. Wright

I have to be honest - when I picked up this book, I thought it might finally be the one to get a really shitty review. I have liked a large majority of the books I've read for this blog, which works out well for me, but it makes me worry that I don't come across as a very discerning reader. So when I saw the front cover of this one - with its lurid title in big block letters across a picture of a woman in the back seat of a car, head thrown back in ecstasy - I thought, yeah, this is the trash I'm looking for.

But it didn't turn out that way, because to my utter surprise, this is a smart, well-written and...almost lovely novel. It purports to be about adultery but I think it is more general in its themes, honestly. I think it is about death, and family, and in particular about, in the words of the book itself:

"[...T]he sheer cussedness of life: its enslavement to appetite and old bad habits, its helpless reliance on chance, its thousand natural shocks that threaten to undo us."
Sounds depressing, right? Admittedly it's not a happy story. Our protagonist, Dan Fielding, is on business in London and slips down to Devon for the weekend with a much younger co-worker, Denise, with whom he is engaged in a two-day-old affair. She is abducted, raped and killed (in the first chapter, no spoiler alert needed) and the rest of the story follows Dan home to Toronto as he deals with the aftermath of his choices and of the random twist of fate that revealed them. It's an odd situation: his family is guarded in their anger over the affair because of the death and media circus; the grieving family and friends of the victim don't know how to handle this older man who brought her (accidentally) to her death. It's weird. Although it isn't first person, most of the narration happens inside Dan's head as he processes what others must be thinking about him. There isn't a lot of discussion of how he feels about himself, which I think is a deliberate choice.

I liked it. The writing is very good, the story was interesting and I liked that it dealt with a part of death that doesn't get a lot of play in fiction - the surreal period immediately afterwards, and the awkward dilemma of how to conduct oneself when one didn't have a straightforward relationship with the deceased. Dan leaves the funeral knowing far more about Denise than he did before, and the overwhelming loss of what her life could have been is bigger for him than the loss of her. The novel explores a lot of stuff like that without explicitly naming it; there is a lot to be drawn from it that depends on one's own experiences.

My one objection is that I found Dan almost too sympathetic; the narrative sometimes seems to forget the thoughtless and humiliating ordeal he put his wife and daughter through by having an affair. I didn't buy any of his justifications and had a hard time understanding his motivation for sleeping with Denise in the first place.

There's not a lot of Toronto-centric stuff going on, so I can't recommend it on a get-to-know-Toronto basis, but as a novel it's solid and an interesting read. Quick, but not light.

Four CN Towers out of five.

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