Where do you fall on the infidelity scale? Do you always blame the cheating spouse? Or are you one of those who thinks that the the one the spouse cheats with is at fault? Do you lay any responsibility at the feet of the one cheated on?
Sarah Rayner confronts that issue to some degree in her story, introducing you to Maggie (the wife) and Chloe (the mistress).
Maggie and Jamie’s marriage is staid and comfortable. Parents to a seven-year-old son, they live in the English countryside, from which Jamie commutes to his London job as a magazine publisher. Perhaps the spark is missing, but it isn’t as if Maggie doesn’t try. She purchases lacy lingerie and whips up foods full of aphrodisiacs. A freelance journalist and writer, she wants to be exciting to her husband; she also wants another child, and she can be a bit flinty and unyielding.
Ten years younger than Maggie, Chloe is nearing thirty and still single. She questions women whom she believes “conveniently” get pregnant when they are in their early thirties, effectively trapping the man into marriage and fatherhood. She’s curvaceous and luscious, “all woman” as Jamie observes. She enjoys sex and is an adventurous lover. Sure, she’s a little lonely and would like a relationship and kids (someday), but she’s also ripe with sexual promise. Jamie recognizes this immediately and is drawn to her.
What begins as the quenching of sexual need becomes more, for both Chloe and Jamie. They talk. They get to know each other. It’s a real courtship, shared by two people actively looking for a connection in and out of bed. Jamie wants to be understood and desired, but not in the way Maggie understands and desires him. He wants more. He wants passion and sexual intimacy, if not quite the emotional variety. Chloe is viscerally drawn to him; her body’s response to him is almost feral.
But what of Maggie? She wants another child; Jamie does not. What does that mean for her? For him? For the two of them? And what does it mean that her husband prefers another woman?
One thing Rayner does quite effectively is refuse to take sides. Maggie is not terribly likable. She is demanding, almost shrewish, and likes to control her husband. She occasionally resorts to silly gamesmanship when it comes to disarming him with the appearance of a former lover of hers. She wants another child, but she refuses to listen to his reasons for not having one. She’s also nearing forty and all of that number’s attendant insecurities. She seeks value in her husband’s desire for her, motherhood, and her professional success.
Chloe, on the other hand, is immature, flighty, and hedonistic. For all of her success in magazine publishing, she is an utter disaster personally. She knows that Jamie is married, yet she offers only tame objection to a relationship with him. To her credit, she does think about Maggie and Jamie’s son. She wonders how she would feel. But Jamie is like a drug to her. She can’t get enough. And despite knowing that she shouldn’t – that she really should not – she imagines a future with him. She allows herself to love him.
We do not get in Jamie’s head; all we know of him is what his wife and lover tell us about him. Because he is in both of their stories, he emerges as a bit unsavory and a lot selfish. Even so, when he tells us about his relationship with Maggie, we understand him better. He isn’t a bad guy so much as a weak one.
I spent the better part of the book wondering who Jamie would choose, even as I knew that there could be no happy ending. Someone was going to get terribly hurt, whether Maggie or Chloe; far more likely, both would. Rayner writes in a way that keeps you turning the pages, even when you don’t particularly like her characters.
Infidelity is an evil element, a bomb that leaves devastation for all concerned. But sometimes it also opens doors that you never knew existed.