Celia Cassill is a young widow preserved in a sort of stasis of her own making. Following a brief, self-destructive streak, she bought and renovated an old building not far from the neighborhood she and her husband lived in. She now rents three apartments in the building to tenants whom she has very carefully selected. Privacy is essential to her and she wants tenants who recognize and respect one another’s separateness.
But when she, against her better judgment, allows one of her tenants to sublet, Celia’s carefully constructed partitions are shaken and breached. Hope is a recently divorced woman on her own journey through grief, self-destruction, and eventual freedom. Her experiences, which Celia can’t help but be privy to through the thin floor/ceiling separating them, far too closely mirror Celia’s own past. And that mirror causes her to reopen her wounds and take a new ownership of her grief, her past, and herself.
The Affairs of Others is a literary novel with a truly haunting and poetic voice. The narrator speaks of people’s bodies and emotions as landscapes, using geographical terms. For instance, she describes “sorrow’s peculiar altitude and how disorienting it can be.” At one point she is confronted with Hope in the hallway and burdened with the sudden expectations: “Yes, the whole complicated landscape of women’s relationships was before us on that landing.” In fact, the terms “landscape” and “disorienting” are heavy in the opening lines of the book. In this way, people are treated as though they are standing still and the world is moving through them. Relationships are a journey through the landscape of other people. This is a really interesting and unique perspective.
Thematically, the truths implied in this book aren’t especially unique. There isn’t anything we don’t already know. What is different, and not necessarily to advantage in a novel, is that our main character doesn’t seem to apply the truths to herself. Celia knows that in order to form a lasting relationship, you have to give something of yourself. While she finds the ability to walk through the doors others open into their own lives, she ultimately refuses to let them into hers, thereby failing to form a truly hopeful or permanent relationship.
Likewise she knows that grief is a thing that must be passed through in order to achieve freedom. We see this in both her mother and in Hope. They move through their pain and on the other side, they fly higher than before. Celia refuses this step. She makes it halfway by facing her grief and herself, but ultimately deciding, quite consciously, that she won’t absolve herself of guilt. She won’t leave her dead husband and the obligation she feels to him. She’ll stay with it.
So in a sense, this character doesn’t travel very far. She sees and understands, but she doesn’t evolve. And if you’ve read the first page carefully, you’ll see the warning: “My husband died a difficult death. I went with him, or a lot of me did. I cannot apologize for this nor do I wish to challenge that I am changed.”
This baffles me, in a novel, because don’t we crave the evolution of character? Perhaps the author seeks to challenge this. Celia often credits American society with the pressure to share and to move past grief. I’m not sure this is specifically American. I’m fairly certain it is just human. But Celia resolutely rejects this pressure and clings to privacy and guilt-driven obligation. I’m uncertain how to feel about it.
Nevertheless, I recommend this book. Personally, I had to get past the New York cultural aspect. I’m not from New York. I don’t have the reverence for it that this author does. It’s a culture foreign to me. But that particular discomfort didn’t linger long once I got to know the characters. And though I’m undecided on whether I “like” this book or not, I most definitely feel challenged by it.
A.D. Cole is a homeschooling mother and aspiring romance novelist. She lives in the Ozark foothills and spends her free time reading, writing, baking and pondering life’s little mysteries.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Picador. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.