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.
(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.
"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.
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?
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?