I was a late comer to The Affair¸ the Showtime series that’s pretty much exactly what you think it’s about, but also more. It details the marriages– and of course, affair– of two people: Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson). But it has got a useful trick that makes it rise above a narrative soap opera that you and I and everyone who has read fiction since Madame Bovary has heard: it tells the same story from different perspectives, presenting, at its best, a fascinating portrait of the power that memory and perception has on the stories people tell themselves to justify what they do and what they say. Suffice it to say that I was more than delighted to be a latecomer- it meant that I got to binge-watch the whole first season over the course of a weekend and not have to wait a second to analyze another perspective, judge another terrible judgment call and decide just who might be right about whether they just “forgot” to pick up the kids or were too busy indulging in the fantasy of the week to remember.
It’s uneven, but sometimes brilliant second season just ended, and if you’re like me, you’re going to want something to fill the void until season three. And of course, as a honorable book-nerd in good standing, I’ve decided to find my Affair fix in book form. For those of you of a similar inclination, here’s some ideas for books that might fill the void:
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
This may seem like an odd one to start with for a show about marriage and affairs, but so much of the underlying narrative about the affair is really about a narrative of dark, unending grief and the inability to fill the giant void it leaves behind and move on. I can’t think of a book more searing on this subject than Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk. This book is a record of MacDonald’s feelings during the period right after the death of her father, and also a memoir of how she got through that time by training a goshawk, long denoted in the hawking community as one of the most difficult hawks to tame. MacDonald’s relationship with her hawk, Mabel, takes her to some dark places as she seeks oblivion, forgiveness, and maybe, just maybe, new joy. I found myself sobbing, but hardly realized it until I saw tear marks on the pages, just because I was so engrossed and transported in to Helen and Mabel’s world. If you ever wondered why people sympathize so much with Allison on the show, this book has all those answers and more.
Orkney by Amy Sackville
This is one of my absolute favorite books, so I’ll take any excuse to recommend it, but in this case it really fits quite remarkably well for those of you who are are as affected as I am by the show’s more atmospheric and moody elements (oh man, that opening title track by Fiona Apple- whoever selected that understands their job well). Orkney is the story of a honeymoon of a, at first glance, very clichéd literary couple- he, the brilliant literary professor, her, the beautiful undergraduate, their scandalous courtship covered over with a quick marriage. But all that is is a framework to present it’s real object, which is a psychological labyrinth of a mystery about two people who have entwined themselves so much with stories and myths and images and words that they ended up entwining themselves in each other, almost as if by accident. Sackville brings the poignancy and spine-tingling sensitivity of her words to a peak by setting the story on the shores of a lonely, silent beach on the Orkney island, where the sea, mist and fog become characters in themselves, characters that obscure the proceedings and lend them the self-fulfilling prophecy of mythical structure that these characters have been trying to lose themselves in since before the story started. We’ll never quite understand what happens, which should be deeply familiar to those of us who watch The Affair regularly.
Enough About Love by Henri Le Tellier
For those of you who love the multiple-perspectives-on-a-romantic-relationship concept of The Affair, this is the book for you. It focuses on the relationships of a few couples in Paris, all of whom are intertwined with each other by marriage, illicit affairs, hidden feelings and/or (supposed) friendship. Le Tellier brings each character to life, and in similar style to the show, we see how and why things happen and how and why each character thinks things happen. Unlike the show, this book comes to a more wholehearted conclusion, so we get to have at least some sort of closure. Plus, it’s French and literary, which feels like it suits some of the show’s more flighty elements.
Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux
Have you read Annie Ernaux? She’s not as much read these days, as far as I can tell, and I myself would never have heard of her without the intervention of some wonderful women older than I who could show me the way, but I’m so glad they did. Simple Passion is nothing more than a straightforward memoir of the course of one woman’s obsessive love for a man. Outward plot doesn’t matter, and indeed, hardly exists- this book is a minute recollection of how it felt to be in love, the actions one took and each exquisitely painful, ecstatic reason why she took it. Any woman (and perhaps anyone) who has experienced this sort of obsessive, literally life-altering love will remember some part of this in their bones. It’s short, you can read it in an afternoon, but you may expect the mood to linger on much longer than that. For those who ever wondered at some of Noah and Allison’s least explicable actions, this is another piece of the puzzle that may shed some light on where those bizarre choices come from.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Yeah, I had to go there. I would assume that many watchers of The Affair have read this, but on the off-chance you hadn’t, I had to point out the obvious and I would still consider one of the best treatments of the whole subject of infidelity. I know a lot of people don’t have sympathy for Emma Bovary, but I’m guessing that anyone who made it past a few episodes of The Affair at least may be able to get past that or suspend judgment in order to focus on the character development behind it all. And Flaubert’s invocation of Emma is one of the best. He really does a wonderful job of explaining, from the first page we meet her, how Emma ended up the way that she did, and it’s a tragic mix of background, circumstance, personality and frustrated opportunity (increased, of course, by the time and place in which she lived) that leads us to at least comprehend (if not approve) of her choices. She is no saint, of course- she is a deeply flawed human being who makes choices that would make anyone want to shake her many many times throughout the book, but the ugly place she’s in doesn’t make her less human or less recognizable at all. It will probably remind you of more than one echo of this character in your reading, and most of all, perhaps, of a lonely girl from Montauk who has made a few bad decisions of her own.
I hope that you enjoy these books. But remember, whatever you do, don’t read these books in Montauk. I hear reading there has unfortunate effects on people.