Love affairs and extramarital dalliances in literature are as popular as ever. A little escapism never hurt anyone, right?
Living vicariously through our favourite characters can send us on a rollercoaster of emotions at times, especially when the novel is full of secrecy and titillation. Many novels are concerned with love, passion, and sex, with some prompting the reader to ask themselves some difficult questions about relationships. Does the safety of a relationship dull the shine of the passion felt at the start? Do those involved in adultery feel fulfilled by the excitement and sneaking around?
Many writers have attempted to answer some of these questions, bringing some of us into their worlds of secrecy, sex, and spurned spouses.
1. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
“The torrid story of Frank Chambers, the amoral drifter, Cora, the sullen and brooding wife, and Nick Papadakis, the amiable but inconvenient husband, has become a classic of its kind, and established Cain as a major novelist with a spare and vital prose style and a bleak vision of America.”
2. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
“In this novel – a story of irreconcilable loves and infidelities – Milan Kundera addresses himself to the nature of twentieth-century ‘Being’ In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and by fortuitous events, a world in which everything occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. We feel, says the novelist, ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ – not only as the consequence of our private acts but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine.”
3. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
“The first book in his award-winning ‘Rabbit’ series, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run contains an afterword by the author in Penguin Modern Classics.
It’s 1959 and Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, one time high school sports superstar, is going nowhere. At twenty-six he is trapped in a second-rate existence – stuck with a fragile, alcoholic wife, a house full of overflowing ashtrays and discarded glasses, a young son and a futile job. With no way to fix things, he resolves to flee from his family and his home in Pennsylvania, beginning a thousand-mile journey that he hopes will free him from his mediocre life. Because, as he knows only too well, ‘after you’ve been first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate’.”
4. Deception by Philip Roth
“He is a middle-aged American writer called Philip; she is an articulate, well-educated Englishwoman trapped in a loveless and humiliating marriage. In Philip’s London studio, this play of voices – sharp, tender and inquiring – reveals both their past lives with startling clarity. Deception is fiendishly clever, as it dances with the conventions of the novel, and redefines the boundaries between fiction and reality.”
5. Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
“Vinnie Miner, 54-year-old Anglophile professor, is in London on a six-month foundation grant. So is her young colleague, Fred Turner. Vinnie is plain and resignedly self-reliant; Fred is arrestingly handsome and moping after a breakup with his wife. Vinnie and Fred have love affairs in London. Fred’s is a fraught liaison with a waitress while Vinnie drifts into a relationship with an engineer from Oklahoma she met on the plane, a brash uneducated stereotypical American who finally beguiles her (and the reader) with his uncomplicated goodness…”
6. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“The heroine of Tolstoy’s epic of love and self-destruction, Anna Karenina has beauty, wealth, popularity and an adored son, but feels that her life is empty until she encounters the impetuous officer Count Vronsky. Their subsequent affair scandalises society and family alike, and brings jealousy and bitterness in its wake. Contrasting with this is the vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and a meaning to his life – and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself. This award-winning translation has been acclaimed as the definitive English version of Tolstoy’s masterpiece.”
7. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
“When ‘The Awakening’ was first published in 1899, charges of sordidness and immorality seemed to consign it into obscurity and irreparably damage its author’s reputation. But a century after her death, it is widely regarded as Kate Chopin’s great achievement. Through careful, subtle changes of style, Chopin shows the transformation of Edna Pontellier, a young wife and mother, who – with tragic consequences – refuses to be caged by married and domestic life, and claims for herself moral and erotic freedom.”
8. The Easter Parade by Richard Yates
“Even as little girls, Sarah and Emily are very different from each other. Emily looks up to her wiser and more stable older sister and is jealous of her relationship with their absent father, and later her seemingly golden marriage. The path she chooses for herself is less safe and conventional and her love affairs never really satisfy her. Although the bond between them endures, gradually the distance between the two women grows, until a tragic event throws their relationship into focus one last time.”
9. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
“When Emma Rouault marries Charles Bovary she imagines she will pass into the life of luxury and passion that she reads about in sentimental novels and women’s magazines. But Charles is a dull country doctor, and provincial life is very different from the romantic excitement for which she yearns. In her quest to realise her dreams she takes a lover, and begins a devastating spiral into deceit and despair. ”
10. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
“The love affair between Maurice Bendrix and Sarah, flourishing in the turbulent times of the London Blitz, ends when she suddenly and without explanation breaks it off. After a chance meeting rekindles his love and jealousy two years later, Bendrix hires a private detective to follow Sarah, and slowly his love for her turns into an obsession.”