November 2009

Helplessly Hoping

by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman

Lonely Hearts Book Club Picks

“I divide all readers into two classes: those who read to remember and those who read to forget.”
—William Lyon Phelps (1865-1943)

I’ve been dating this man for three years, and he still won’t commit. Okay, the truth is he’s married to someone else. But he tells me he doesn’t sleep with his wife and that he just feels too guilty to leave her right now because she suffers from agoraphobia. He swears up and down that he doesn’t love her and promises he’s only staying in the house until his youngest graduates from high school. Meanwhile, as you can imagine, I have lots of free time on my hands, and I’m alone every freaking holiday weekend. What would you recommend I read?
—Nicole F., Newport Beach

We recommend you read him the riot act. We’re betting you can stay with him until hell freezes over, and he’ll still be cuddled up in his home with his agoraphobic wife. And you’ll remain “the other woman” at a table for one on New Year’s Eve. This story has been told umpteen times, and sadly, it never ends well. There are so many variations on this depressing theme, but where to begin? Let’s start with the classics...

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, and Hedda Gabler, by Henrik Ibsen

Seriously, do you really want to end up like them?

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

Loosely based on Greene’s own affair with his goddaughter, Lady Catherine Walston, to whom the book is dedicated, the plot turns on a bizarre bargain with God that ends badly for all involved.

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver

This is the “what-if” novel of infidelity, exploring both the soaring highs and the ever unpleasant consequences of plunging into a love affair with reckless abandon. The Orange Prize–winning Shriver manages to create clever parallel universes in which passion dukes it out with obligatory married sex.

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, and Heartburn, by Nora Ephron

If Innocence’s May had been able to read Heartburn, she would have dumped her cheating fiancé, married Nicholas Pileggi and lived happily ever after in a New York flat on the Upper West Side. Yes, it’s chronologically impossible, but the idea that it could happen is definitely worthy of warping the space-time continuum.

Possession: A Romance, by A.S. Byatt

Two modern scholars discover an affair between the Victorian poets they have been researching. The cheating husband “doesn’t sleep with his wife” either. Come on now, Nicole—isn’t that what they all say?

The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This book inspired copycat suicides when it came out in the late 18th century. Oh, never mind.

Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore

Funny, sad and slightly warped short stories—zero in on the one titled “How to Be an Other Woman.”

The Other Woman, edited by Victoria Zackheim

Twenty-one essays about love and betrayal by such luminaries as Jane Smiley, who recounts, “The sixty-one-year-old introduced me to his favorite idea: ‘a wife, a mistress and a little bit on the side.’ As I got to know him, I realized I was intended to be the bit on the side.”

A Severed Head, by Iris Murdoch

What happens when a cheating husband discovers, to his horror, that his wife is also having an affair? It's not pretty. And if you like this, be sure to read a Murdoch classic, The Bell, which brilliantly dissects the comings and goings of a group of slightly deranged brainy Brits, focusing on a scholar and his erring bohemian wife: “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.”

And if you ever come to your senses, try The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka: A guy inexplicably turns into a cockroach and, to his family’s great relief, ultimately dies in a heap of trash.