Tuesday, March 8, 2016

My Cheating Heart

When it comes to readers' romance novel no-nos, a hero who cheats on the object of his desires is probably at the top of the list. Whenever I've seen the topic come up on various romance blogs I frequent, many readers express their dismay and disgust for romances in which adultery or some other form of emotional cheating plays a role in the romance storyline.

What, though, of books in which the heroine is the cheater? By some quirk of chance, my romance reading (and film viewing) this past week has been filled with romance heroines who either are tempted to cheat, or who actually engage sexually with men other than the one with whom they start the story. Thinking about these books (and film) and the quite different outcomes each grants their not entirely faithful heroines made me wonder about the ways in which female infidelity can be examined through a feminist lens.

Unlike Emma Bovary, the ur-female cheater of the literary novel (Flaubert's lauded Madame Bovary, 1857), none of the heroines in the works I read/watched ended up dead. But are they punished or rewarded for their transgressions?

(Since the endings of all of the stories are discussed below, you may not wish to read if you want to avoid spoilers...)

Bethany Chase's The One That Got Away, more women's fiction than romance, presents the most conventional (and most morally acceptable) version of the cheating heroine: the heroine who initially chose the "safe" partner, and whose character growth requires her to reject that partner in favor of the man who makes her feel more. The book's title is a bit of a misnomer; the story is more "the one who slept with me one time, who I thought I connected with instantly, but who then never called me back." And who then, of course, shows up back in town years later, making the sexual sparks fly all over again. Too bad protagonist Sarina is engaged to someone else. A really nice older man who loves her deeply. Too bad that said man is hundreds of miles away, working for months in Argentina. Because when Sarina is asked by her former one-night stand, Eamon, to design his new house, Sarina discovers that she wasn't really wrong in her initial assessment of Eamon.

Sarina's cheating is fairly mild, on the cheating scale of the stories I read/watched this week. She and Eamon go on outings together; they snuggle and even sleep over without sexual contact; they kiss. If Sarina had been a little more self-aware, she would have broken up with her good-guy fiancé far earlier. But that would have left us with a far shorter novel. Instead, we watch Sarina lie to her fiancé, lie to Eamon, and especially lie to herself about her true feelings, too afraid of hurting others, and especially of being hurt herself, to break off her engagement until the emotional cheating line has clearly been crossed. Sarina does ultimately achieve her happy ending, but not before we have to witness her being verbally punished for her misdeeds—not only by having to suffer the frustration and anger of her (finally) ex-fiancé, but also Eamon's, after she fails to tell her new love she's broken up with the old. Cheating here is okay if it is done in the cause of true love, and if the heroine is narratively punished before achieving happiness.

Sarah Polley's 2011 film, Take This Waltz, like Madame Bovary, features a woman who has already committed herself to another man when she is drawn to another. While on a trip for her work as a travel writer, 28-year-old Margot meets and flirts with attractive artist Daniel. But when she discovers that he lives just across the street from her, she reveals that she is married. The two keep running into one another, mostly on purpose; during their time together, they flirt some more, and Margot reveals some of her emotional vulnerabilities around her anxiety issues. From the scenes we see of Margot's life with her husband of five years, it is clear that though the two care for one another, they are not as in-synch with each other emotionally as at least Margot wishes they were. A scene in which Margot approaches Lou sexually while he is trying to cook (he's a cookbook writer), and he rejects her, and she tries to explain how it takes courage to put herself out there in that way, something Lou seems to completely not get, is particularly painful to watch.

Towards the end of the film, Margot leaves Lou in favor of Daniel. A "happy montage" sequence follows, showing Margot and Daniel moving in together and having sex with one another, suggests Margot made the right decision. But when the montage starts to include sex scenes that feature a third party, one time a man, one time a woman, the "happily ever after" gets a little more complicated. And when the same shots that opened the film reappear now, shots that we were led to assume were shots of a discontented Margot with her husband but turn out to be of Margot with Daniel, doubts start to grow. In case we were in any doubt about those doubts, a scene in which Geraldine, Margot's recovering alcoholic ex-sister-in-law, falls off the wagon and tells Margot that leaving her brother is the same as Geraldine trying to escape via liquor, hammers the point home:

"I'm the embarrassment? Me? Do you know, we're doing the same fucking thing here?.... I think you're a bigger idiot than I am. I think you really fucked up, Margot. In the big picture, life has a gap in it. It just does. You don't go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic."

The final shot of the film doesn't show Margot killing herself as Emma Bovary did when faced with the disappointing truth that her affairs are not sufficient to achieve her dreams. Instead, it shows her riding alone on a carnival ride, one which she rode with Daniel earlier in the film. Is Margot being punished for thinking to find a truer love than the one she had with Lou? Or is she facing the universal human truth to which Geraldine gave voice: that life is filled with gaps, with dissatisfaction, that we're never fully happy? The message is as ambivalent as the lyrics to the Leonard Cohen song "Take This Waltz" that serves as the film's title and  "happy" montage accompaniment.

Readers of Willow Aster's contemporary romance Maybe Maby will likely focus on the book's depiction of a heroine who struggles with OCD and depression. But because I read Maby this week, the small plotline about Maby having sex with one guy while she's dating another is what caught my eye. Maby didn't realize when she broke up with cheating Dalton that all of their mutual friends would end up with him, not her. Even Saul, who started out Dalton's best friend but quickly became Maby's. But Saul's guilt over their one-time kiss while Maby was still with Dalton, as well, perhaps, as his fears of doing something that might exacerbate Maby's mental health, has kept him away. Now, nearly a year later, when Maby is just starting to date younger man Coen, Saul is inexplicably back on the scene. Maby's been crushing on Saul for a very long time, and to have him trying to make his way back into her life leaves her quite torn. She even goes as far as kissing him, even knowing that every "any sign of feelings came into the picture, you got cold feet."

But when Maby is unfairly fired from her job, she goes into a tailspin that has her considering suicide. When Saul, worried, breaks into her apartment, he feels he has to rescue her, even though she's decided to set her suicidal thoughts aside. He insists she come to his apartment with him, where he proceeds to feed her pizza and wine and then goes in for a kiss. Feeling that she should give him a second chance, despite her doubts, Maby proceeds to sleep with him.

The sex is good, but still, Maby is unsure. Because she really likes Coen. A lot.

Many readers hate to see a romance heroine (or hero) sexually intimate with another character once she/he has met the book's love interest. But Maby's act here isn't cast as cheating ("It's not like Coen and I were exclusive or anything, but..." [page 143]), not by Maby, and not by the narrative. Instead, having sex with Saul helps Maby figure her out own feelings, her feelings about Saul, about Coen, and even about herself. Rather than being used as a reason to punish the heroine, Maby's sex with Saul is instead used to show us how different Maby's two suitors are. When Saul finds Maby in emotional distress, he gets her drunk and has sex with her; later in the novel, when Coen finds Maby in a harmful OCD spiral, he takes her to the hospital to get help. Which man do you think she ultimately chooses?

Jessica Hawkins' contemporary romance/women's fiction Slip of the Tongue, like Take This Waltz, features a married couple. But unlike the film, in which Margot breaks up with her husband before sleeping with Daniel, Hawkins' protagonist, Sadie, ends up embroiled in an affair while still married. And while still deeply in love with her husband, Nathan. Nathan's always been the perfect husband, doting, kind, worshipping the ground Sadie walks on. Until one day, he just stops, shutting her out cold with no explanation. Whenever she tries to talk to him about it, he puts her off, or tells her he needs time to figure out what he wants. The small clues he reveals during Sadie's anguished questioning—he always has to give in to Sadie, does she really love him if he's always the one who has to make the sacrifice—leave the reader wondering if Sadie is the one responsible for their marital breakdown. Since the narrative, like all of the other novels discussed here, is told only from the female point of view, it is hard to see whether Nathan's criticisms are at all valid, and if they are, to what degree.

Each time Nathan pushes Sadie away, Sadie finds comfort in her new neighbor, Finn. At first, their connection is friendly, then flirty. But as each of Sadie's attempts to confront Nathan falls on seemingly deaf ears, Sadie begins to take comfort in Finn's obvious attraction. And soon she is taking more than emotional comfort.

Can a marriage be salvaged after such an act of infidelity? In romance, if the unfaithful one is the husband, it can and often has been. But when the wife is the one who crosses the line? Hawkins asks romance readers to step back from the judgmental stance most are likely to take when faced with a protagonist like Sadie, and to empathize instead. And to consider that the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of both partners is often the cause for infidelity, rather than ultimate evil on one side and innocence on the other.

For me, it was both disturbing and refreshing to read a romance in which the fantasy is not that a hot guy rescues you and rocks your sexual world, but instead that a hot guy rocks your sexual world and then your husband fights for you to get you back in spite of your transgressions.

Are there other romance novels out there that show their heroine cheating but that don't condemn or punishing her for her actions?


  1. Really enjoyed this whole article and the different takes on infidelity. Thanks for sharing & including Slip of the Tongue!

    1. You're very welcome, Jessica. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Reading this made me think of The Mermaid Chair. It's been a long time since I read it but I don't remember feeling like the main character was punished. It was as if her cheating was what she needed to break out of the person she was.

    1. MERMAID CHAIR is more literary fiction than straight-up romance, though, isn't it?

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