Consequences (of Defensive Adultery) by M. Jane Colette (May 2, 2017); 232 pages. Available as either ebook or paperback at Amazon here. And from Kobo books here. (See the author’s website at mjanecolette.com for more buying options.)
Consequences proposes, in a roundabout way, the concept of “defensive adultery”—adultery, in other words, committed in response to one’s partner’s wrongs (be they emotional abandonment or sexual affairs), a way of salving oneself after a lover’s cruelty, or of creating enough emotional distance that the lover’s wrongdoings can’t hurt you. In the novel, the narrator Elizabeth relates the story of such adultery to her current lover as they… do lover things.
In her story, which occurs before she takes up with her current lover, she begins an affair with a professor whose marriage to another woman, Zia, has crumbled. Into the empty space steps Elizabeth, only to discover that, once she is the wife and no longer the lover, she is put in Zia’s place as her husband takes newer, younger lovers on the side. Zia angrily haunts their relationship—in no small part because she has a daughter with the professor, a daughter who is shuttled between Zia’s and her father’s homes; also in the mix is the angry, pansexual, pierced and tattooed daughter-in-rebellion Sasha, the narrator’s blood daughter Alexandra, and Sasha’s godmother, Zia’s and Elizabeth’s friend Annie.
It’s a tenuous trembling thing, this web of people pulled together into a knot of relationships, all painful, all vital, but all the push-pull kind of hate-love. Elizabeth is strung between them all, hero and aggressor and victim in one, more naturally reactive, struggling to become active on her own. She is, in other words, extremely human.
The story is told through Elizabeth’s voice, cut through with conversations between Elizabeth and her current lover, who controls and tortures her (only as much as she agrees to and enjoys) as she recounts. The frame tale (the story of Elizabeth telling the story to her lover, his statements of interest and whim, and his tormenting of her) gives tension to the story Elizabeth is telling, positions it differently for the reader than one might be inclined to understand it otherwise. The lover becomes, through the telling, a needling voice, disbelieving the point of view or recasting the events through a different eye, calling into question the sole authority–or even primacy–of the narrator.
The author herself (whom I recently met at a book conference) hands out business cards that read “I write erotica for smart people,” which translates to this novel being gentler, more emotionally complex, more subtle and less flatly pornographic than what passes for “erotica” in most fiction/film (there’s no, “Pizza? I didn’t order any pizza“-level doing-it here). It is more about who feels what because of whom than it is about who puts what where. (It is, perhaps, more in keeping with the root of that word, “eros,” which refers either to the god of love, according to the ancient Greeks (Eros, who is like the Roman god Cupid), or to, in Freud’s terms, the “life instinct.” In those terms, yes, it’s erotica for sure.)
In fact, I’d call this “feminist erotica” (and here I can’t remember if Colette refers to her work as such, but I certainly would), in that it does not rely on dehumanizing the participants for its effects. In fact, the narrator and the women with whom she deals are allowed to be relentlessly human: confused, inarticulate about their feelings at times, proud, sometimes in the wrong, sometimes behaving badly, but still stubbornly doing it, complex, sympathetic, smart-and-stupid, real women. Plus, they’re too old and their bodies too lived-in to be porn vixens. Zia, the ex-wife who comes closest to being a villain in this story, is given the same attention and intelligence in her portrayal: the reader understands her more as a complex, angry, hurt, relatively powerless woman trying the only avenues she knows to get what she needs, rather than as a villain. I think of her more as the narrator’s antagonist; she’s the fly in the ointment, sure, but a sympathetic fly.
In fact, the only characters here who even skirt—excuse the pun—the edges of being stock are the story’s two most relevant men (the narrator’s ex-husband and her current lover), a turnabout kind of condition that could feel quite Ha-Ha-Now-YOU-be-a-substanceless-trope-for-a-change-satisfying though not necessarily right (in the way that audiences are supposed to cheer when the Scooby-Doo villain gets a bucket of paint dumped on his head), but the novel avoids this trap, stays feminist, and fleshes these guys out, too. They’re not the simple villains we’re inclined to make of them, there’s no just desserts here, or grand ironies, or, for that matter, paint buckets; there’s just real, complex people getting by in the ways they know how.
These characters, in other words, are not paper dolls—one always has the feeling, when reading, of having stumbled on a secret, of being let in to spy on something real and fraught and difficult that will go on whether or not one’s watching.
But you can’t, in the end, help but watch anyway.