Affairs are perhaps the original literary trope. You can go all the way back to the oldest surviving piece of English literature, Beowulf—or you could go even farther back to the Bible—and you’ll find an affair or two…or thirty-five. Sure, this is a case of art imitating life; people do have affairs. However, I doubt they think about the why of it very much. This is where good literature comes in. They are a great plot device, too, as, generally, affairs don’t end well for the characters involved (anyone remember Fatal Attraction?). Throw an affair into any story, especially in the crime genre, and murders are likely to happen. A lot of time we only learn about them as readers during the investigation after.
In my upcoming book, Breakfall (releasing April 4), an affair at a close-knit Jiu Jitsu gym takes center stage after one of their members is found dead. Though it is a “crime” novel, the focus is more on the relationships between the main characters—that’s what I find most fascinating. Here’s a list of other books that explore the why’s and how’s of infidelity.
I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum
“Moments of great import are often tinged with darkness because perversely we yearn to be let down,” starts Courtney Maum’s first novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. Nearly ten years after its release, it is still one of my favorite first lines in modern literature. It’s so perfectly succinct and so perfectly true, something that felt true to me even in 2014, during my early twenties, when I hardly knew anything about anything—and that is the ultimate magic of good writing. Showing you that there are ideas you can understand in a subconscious way before you understand them in a conscious way.
Maum’s book, which is set in London and Paris, follows Richard, an artist in his mid-thirties, whose wife has found about his affair just as his career begins to take off. While Richard tries to win back her affection, and find where his went in the first place, his journey brings up many questions (and, sometimes, answers) about life and love. It’s a slightly different approach to your run-of-the-mill literary dalliance, which is one of many reasons it resonated so much with readers at the time of its release in 2014. It is not just a story about infidelity, and its consequences; it’s an exploration into why people make the choices they make, what it means to love someone, and how to maintain that love for as long as possible.
“Infidelity has always fascinated me as a subject matter, especially in America, where many people view it as the ultimate trespass, whereas so many other things (alcoholism, passive aggressiveness, gambling issues, work-aholism), are forgiven on the daily,” Maum says, about her inspiration for her hit debut. “I wanted to look specifically at the act of forgiveness after infidelity as it unfolds in a home with a child in it. What would that forgiving process look like? What would that atmosphere feel like? It’s a complicated space.”
This is another aspect I enjoyed about Maum’s book when I first read it—allowing things to be complicated, and trying to disentangle the complexity instead of skipping over it, while not judging her own characters. In reality, people tend to rush to judgment when it comes to cheating and affairs. It’s easy to point fingers and blame. It’s a simple way to process mistakes. It’s almost desirable—it puts the finger-pointer on a pedestal in their own mind. “I would never do that, at least,” they say. “I must be a better person.”
Simplicity is boring, however, and it’s false, too. Everyone is capable of everything. I grew up in a house with Holocaust survivors, in Ukraine—I know this in my bones. It’s more interesting to explore what makes a character decide to make bad choices, even while knowing they are bad; or examining what long-ignored troubles in a relationship led them down such a road. Affairs don’t just happen in a bubble. Choices lead to more choices lead to more choices. You can’t undo them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t change for the better. This is what makes an affair-centered plot so juicy in books. There is built-in tension, and in most cases, lives are going to be turned upside down, forcing characters to change, whether they want to or not.
Maum understood this very clearly in her debut, which is why it’s such a great book.
A Small Affair by Flora Collins
This 2022 psychological thriller was a fun read in so many ways. Like Maum’s novel, it takes a slightly unique approach to the typical affair story. It follows a young woman whose life is torn apart when her married lover and his wife die, and she is blamed for it, despite not knowing the man was even married! In A Small Affair, Collins explores the most archaic notion known to man: that people have been blaming women for things since the dawn of time. Literally. Since Eve’s consumption of an apple in the Garden of Eden, through the twentieth century, women pay consequences and men go on their merry way. Adam ate that apple too! Yet it’s Eve’s fault humans were banished from Paradise. There are some exceptions of course, like the affair between Helen of Troy and Paris in the 8th-century novel The Iliad, which starts the Trojan war, during which Paris gets killed by an arrow. But that was a death from battle, so it can hardly be counted. It’s why the Metoo movement became so popular in recent years—finally, some accountability! But probably not enough. In A Small Affair, Flora Collins gives this notion a modern twist. Yes, some things never seem to change—but technology has increased both the risks and the consequences of any relationship. Vera’s entire life is destroyed by what happens to her; she can’t even return to work. Because unlike Hawthorne’s puritan Massachusetts, even if you move away, no one can hide from the Internet. This sets Vera on a very compelling journey to clear her name. You won’t want to put it down till you get to the end!
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The literary gamut is filled with shamed women from across the ages; but Russian was my first language, so I can’t have a list about literary affairs without one of the most famous literary affairs—Tolstoy’s poor doomed heroine, Anna Karenina, who is so tormented by public humiliation she famously throws herself in front of a train. Set in late 19th-century Imperial Russia, Anna was rather doomed from the start, as it was not an easy time to be alive regardless of who she was bedding. (The same can be said for her French counterpart Madame Bovary, who poisons herself to death.) Here, too, Anna’s Count Alexei, who is at least equally responsible for the fallout of their relationship, manages to turn out just fine. One has to wonder why, across the centuries, only women are scorned for getting involved with the wrong guy. If it’s an issue of morality, then the man should get thrown under the bus too; and yet, generally, they’re not. Like Nietzsche once said, “fear is the mother of morality.” People fear what they don’t know or what they might not understand, and one of those things has always been female sexuality. Perhaps that’s why so many of the greatest novels featuring risqué behavior these days are written by women!