Reviewer, essayist, and novelist (and frequent Q&Q contributor) Stacey May Fowles returns to long-form fiction with this tale of an obsessive affair. Charlie, a clinically anxious poet and academic, feels trapped. His wife is his motivator, his nurse, and the family’s main breadwinner, and they have an autistic son together. Ronnie, a considerably younger hairdresser, dreads marrying the boyfriend who has worn down her rough edges in an attempt to mould her into his conception of a good wife and mother. An affair offers the escape both Charlie and Ronnie crave.
Among Infidelity’s pleasures is how much Fowles conveys through uncomplicated language, revealing herself to be a skilled and confident author. Employing short chapters, shifting perspectives, and snippets of poetry, she artfully presents a controlled reflection on the illicit relationship’s disorder: lies, clandestine meetings, the lovers’ contradictory need for both domestic security and each other. Above all, it’s an intelligent demonstration of why broken, destructive relationships must be repaired or abandoned, and the difficulty of pursuing either course.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to feel connected to Infidelity’s characters. The few bit players are essentially dull facilitators of plot and the development of the two protagonists. Charlie is ultimately an unlikeable man-child whose obsession with Ronnie is an expression of paralyzing self-absorption. With her slow realization that change is essential, and facing the looming threat of cancer and infertility, Ronnie is more sympathetically – and somewhat more fully – drawn, but nevertheless remains distant.
This difficulty is exacerbated by an occasional lack of credibility, notwithstanding the fact that lust can inspire irrational behaviour. The novel begins implausibly, at a party where everyone stands in “awe” of Charlie, even though he is awkward and silent. The last time a (silent) poet inspired awe at a party, even a university party, must have been a century ago. And if “all eyes were on him,” why does Charlie and Ronnie’s first, fleeting grope go almost unremarked?