Despite the attention-grabbing title, Adultery, the new novel by the award-winning author of The Alchemist, is not really about cheating. It’s more about that space we reach in the middle of our lives when we start to doubt everything – the midlife crisis.
On the surface, Linda has less reasons for experiencing this crisis than most. She’s in her thirties, attractive, rich, and she lives in beautiful Geneva, Switzerland. She has a loving husband, children, and a good job as a political journalist. All things considered, it’s not easy to empathize with her unhappiness. But as we all know, depression isn’t rational. And Linda is depressed. She explains, “I am a woman torn between the terror that everything might change and the equal terror that everything might carry on exactly the same for the rest of my days.” She also says that, “every time I fake an orgasm, I die a little inside.”
When Linda’s job brings her face-to-face with her high school boyfriend, Jacob, now a prominent, married politician, she finds a respite from her malaise. During the interview he kisses her, and in a moment of pure impulse, she performs a certain (ahem) sex act on him. Later, she thinks to herself that this act was “mechanical and non-erotic” and probably had more to do with trying to wake herself up rather than feelings for her ex. Again, it’s hard to feel for her because she doesn’t experience any guilt over this transgression, only concern about getting caught.
Linda’s boss gets wind of a potential scandal involving Jacob, and sends her back for another interview. This time, Linda and Jacob have a deep and philosophical conversation, and his questions about her happiness are far more intimate than the sex that has transpired between them. She thinks, “No one, not even my marvelous husband, has ever asked if I’m happy.” For the first time, we can feel for her.
She becomes obsessed with Jacob and the state of his marriage, while at the same time trying to keep her own on solid ground. She goes out to dinner with her husband intending to confess her cheating, but instead confesses the lesser of her two shames: her depression. She tells him, “I feel like I’m wasting my life, that one day I’ll look back and regret everything I’ve done, apart from having married you and having our lovely children.” He asks, “But isn’t that what matters most?” Clearly, the answer is no.
As a reader, it’s a bumpy ride veering between empathy for Linda and feeling appalled at her growing obsession with Jacob and his wife. The journey Linda undergoes is filled with sex and pathos. It’s thought-provoking and unlike any novels of marital infidelity I’ve read. Adultery will be a different experience for every reader. Of course, every novel is a mix between what the author is giving the reader and what the reader brings to the story based on his or her own experience, but this is especially true for Adultery. This is not a story that can be evaluated as “good” or “bad.” It’s an experience, and a worthwhile one at that.