The week before Lily’s wedding to a handsome archeologist, she sleeps with her boss, a stranger at a bar and one of her fiancé’s groomsmen. Lily is the protagonist of Eliza Kennedy’s just-released debut novel, I Take You, and she has zero remorse about her infidelity.
Lily is one of several recent fictional female characters who cheat and lie with abandon. In the past year, we’ve seen at least four books — three novels and one short-story collection — where a heroine’s guilt-free affair is a central theme. Perhaps not coincidentally, the authors are also women.
According to Kennedy, there is “some kind of new freedom, at least in literature, to present certain ideas of women who don’t fit into the mould of the faithful girlfriend and wife.” In Katherine Heiny’s recent short story collection Single, Carefree, Mellow, many characters are nonchalant about infidelity, including Nina, a suburban mom who’s sleeping with her running partner, leaving a clergyman houseguest to babysit her kids. In Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut from March, Anna is married with three children and is brazenly juggling two affairs while pining for a former lover. And in Paula Hawkins’s blockbuster The Girl on the Train, two of the three female characters embrace extracurricular activities.
In these books, the authors don’t encourage the reader to judge their protagonists — and very few suffer consequences for their actions. “These are not scripts written by men,” says Susan Shapiro Barash, a gender studies and writing professor at Marymount Manhattan College. “There is no Anna Karenina in these modern tales, no Madame Bovary drinking poison. Infidelity is age old, but the way women approach it in the 21st century has a new spin. And I think that is underscored in the novels.”
For Barash, who’s written 13 women’s studies nonfiction books, including A Passion for More: Wives Reveal the Affairs That Make or Break Their Marriages, this is a case of literature catching up with a social trend. She’s been interviewing female adulterers since the ’90s, and has found they feel their affairs are deserved — 90 percent report no feelings of guilt. Instead, they are empowered by the decisions they’ve made. According to Barash, women were sold a picture of romantic love and marriage by society, but woke up to a very different reality. “We expect our husbands to be the lover and the best friend,” says Barash. “But it turns out, sex, passion and love do not always come in one package. So women feel entitled to look elsewhere or at least follow after it when it finds them.”
Barash was initially surprised by these results, just as the characters in these new books are surprised by their remorselessness. Take this passage from Single, Carefree, Mellow: “The worst thing about the affair, Nina thought, was that it made her so impatient with the children. She had not thought that this would be the worst part. She thought the guilt would be the worst thing, or the stress of the constant deception, or falling out of love with her husband, or some awful day of reckoning, but so far none of these things had happened. Only the impatience.”
Research out of St. Mary’s University in Halifax says that more women feel guilt when they fall in love with someone else than if they’ve had a purely sexual affair. That’s certainly the case with Hausfrau’s Anna (the novel makes many nods to Anna Karenina) who has both types of affairs. While she struggles to justify the purely sexual ones, the emotional one is more clear-cut: “The only thing she rarely felt was guilt. Love trumped guilt like rock won out over scissors.”
Barash has heard similar stories from her real-life subjects. She believes women are tired of the double standard; infidelity is positively linked to a man’s virility but viewed as an unfeminine behaviour. “Women will no longer accept that limitation,” says Barash. “They see their affairs as a way of achieving their full potential.”
Kennedy’s novel asks whether it would be better if we worked all this stuff out before we got married. “The culture surrounding the way that we fall in love and get married conspires to hide the reality of how difficult it is to stay faithful and be monogamous,” she says. “It’s not until you’re well into it that you realize what a challenge it is. I wonder what would happen if people were able to really have these open conversations at the beginning.”
It certainly would have helped the likes of Hester Prynne.