Jane Green (author of books like The Beach House and Promises to Keep) says Sarah Duncan’s novel Adultery for Beginners is “completely engrossing. Like having an affair with (thankfully) none of the guilt.” I find that endorsement sort of strange, really. Like we all dream about having affairs or something. Is there something titillating about them?
Duncan’s novel tells the story of Isabel and Neil. They’ve been married for a while, living the ex-pat life because of Neil’s job as an engineer and have only recently returned home to England with their children, Katie and Michael. Isabel has been a devoted wife and mother, but now that she’s back in England and her children are a little older, she’s decided that she wants to work, perhaps in an office, filing.
“Darling, it’s easy to see it’s years since you’ve been in an office. No one does filing anymore; it’s all on computer,” is her husband’s useful response to that notion.
But Isabel does get a break, through a casual conversation with another mother, and soon she finds herself working for Patrick, a gorgeous egomaniac who somehow manages to find Isabel devastatingly attractive even though Isabel herself feels rather frumpy.
The lesson here: all affairs end badly. Yes, in the beginning, it’s all exciting and sexy but Isabel is not unattached. She has responsibilities which soon get short shrift as she spends her afternoons having wild sex with Patrick. It doesn’t take Isabel very long to figure out that in order to have what she thinks she wants, she’s going to have to give up everything she already has. It’s certainly not a new dilemma, but Duncan does a good job of making Isabel sympathetic, especially to readers of a certain age.
And Neil, as it turns out, is not the man scorned and that opens up a whole other set of problems. If I have one niggle about the book it’s that the suffering and recriminations – when it comes – isn’t really realistic. And Isabel, for all her hard-won freedom as she works out her issues and takes the steps necessary to find the woman she left behind in order to be a wife and mother, falls rather too quickly, if not exactly into the arms of another man, into a man-like safety net. That said, Adultery for Beginners is entertaining and well-written.