The extra marital affair is like a Petrie dish of great material for a writer—secrets, betrayal, danger, sex, destruction, jealousy. Right out of the gate an affair raises the stakes for the characters involved. Marriages could end, families could be destroyed, reputations ruined, and yet, people still do it—risk everything for an illicit hook up. Readers are sucked in by the sexy, intense beginning stages of an affair and will inevitably stick around to see how badly it ends. Another reason that I believe affairs appear so prominently throughout literature is the fact that there’s something universally relatable about them. Most people have either been involved in an affair, tempted by one but resisted, or have been hurt by one. My novel Don’t You Dare centres around the affair of an unhappily married woman and an old college boyfriend who reappears in her life. Through the writing of it I enjoyed exploring not only the secrets, lies and logistics of the affair, but also what causes people to break that so very sacred marital bond in the first place. We all know the common adage, the grass is always greener on the other side, but why do some people actually travel to that other side to find out for themselves, and why do some stay safe and sound on the side they originally bought into? There’s so much to learn about people, relationships, and society through the story of an affair. The novels listed below, in my opinion, find unique, captivating ways to do just that while keeping the reader on the edge of their seats. It’s important to keep in mind that reading about an illicit affair is much safer than engaging in one—as you’ll surely see once you’ve made your way through this particular reading list.
The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins
This is the story of a woman who takes the train into the city every day, catching glimpses of the homes and lives of people living along the train route. She finds herself entranced by, and envious of one particular couple, believing their lives are picture perfect, until she catches a glimpse of something disturbing. Taking it to the police she’s dragged into more than she had ever bargained for. This novel has multiple affairs, all connecting in some way to each other and all leading to some very sinister things. The Girl On The Train tells the story of a group of highly unlikeable people and their destructive ways that you just cannot look away from.
The Patient by Jane Shemilt
Our main protagonist, Rachel is a fifty-year-old doctor with a very stable and predictable life until she becomes swept up in an affair with one of her patients. While she is doing her best to keep her secret from getting out, people are turning up dead around her and she quickly learns that she’s not the only one with secrets. The Patient is a great exploration of what one is willing to risk in the name of physical attraction and the possibility of new love.
The Harpy by Megan Hunter
A contemporary fable about a woman who has devoted herself to her husband, children, and home only to find out that her husband has been having an affair. She will forgive him for it, and keep the family together, but only after she’s evened the score by subjecting him to three acts of punishment that will be unknown to him until they happen and could come at any time. He agrees and the reader becomes witness to the couples sadistic, and fascinating attempt to heal from the destruction of an extra marital affair. The Harpy is powerfully written, dark and haunting, leaving you wondering what punishments you might come up with for those who have wronged you.
Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier
Even when a novel doesn’t centre solely around an affair, they make great subtexts, adding an extra layer of tension and emotion, revealing things about the characters who are being unfaithful and further complicating what may already be a very complicated situation. This is the case with this novel. At the heart of the story is a child who’s been missing for over a year. His already grieving mother is served a second painful blow when she finds out that her husband is having an affair. Now she’s fighting to find her child and save her marriage. Both story lines of Little Secrets keep the reader fully engaged and dying to find out how it will all end up—who will be saved and who will be sacrificed.
The Arrangement by Robyn Harding
A sugar daddy scenario that goes very wrong. We have Natalie, a student at art college, who needs to pay the bills, and Gabe who is thirty years her senior, is married, but wants a younger companion from time to time. Seems like a simple relationship of transaction and convenience but as always, feelings get involved and all hell breaks loose. The Arrangement is the gripping story of a young woman who gets caught up by the allure and power of a wealthy older man who is trying to have it all and does not care who gets hurt in the pursuit of it.
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
What bad could possibly arise when a stay-at-home dad, who feels emasculated by his successful film making wife, and a former feminist turned full time mom, whose husband has become addicted to internet sex, are brought together by the friendship of their young children in the heat of summer? Set in the quiet, suffocating environment of the suburbs, Little Children does a wonderful job of examining how the tedium of parenting, the disconnection from one’s spouse and the slow pace of your mid-thirties can so easily lead one to stray. Adding to the tension of the affair is the return of a convicted pedophile to the neighborhood and the one-man vigilante group who is out to bring him down. Adding to the value of this novel is that it is as much satirical as it is suspenseful. It will have you laughing out loud one minute and biting your nails the next.
Featured image: 1835 Ary Scheffer, The Ghosts of Paolo and Francesca Appear to Dante and Virgil