Published by Hyperion Books
Review by W. R. Greer
Marriage: A Duet us actually two novellas, but each story deals with the theme of marital infidelity. Neither novella is very long; combined, they're only 181 pages. Yet these two stories pack a punch that will set your thoughts and emotions reeling.
In the first novella, A Married Woman, Caroline Betts sits next to her comatose husband, William, who is kept alive by a ventilator. Her life for the last few weeks has revolved around the rhythms of the hospital and the machinery keeping William breathing. Her two children, Steven and Kate, are there often as the family prepares for William's passing. Caroline replays their marriage in her mind, the depth of their love and commitment to each other. They had what appeared to be an idyllic marriage for 40 years with obvious love and affection, well-adjusted children, and careers that allowed them financial security and the freedom to travel whenever they wanted.
Caroline, however, is haunted by an affair William had 13 years ago with one their daughter's friends. It wasn't a simple dalliance, a middle-aged man giving into temptation by the thrill of attention by a younger and prettier woman. This was an affair of the heart, one that was obvious to Caroline without any information from her husband. She suffered it stoically, neither challenging nor threatening him, and acutely aware of the strain it was taking on her husband. He realized he had to choose and took a weekend away to sort it out and make his choice.
Caroline is distraught and on the edge of a breakdown herself that weekend, waiting and wondering what the future held for her. Would she be another one of those middle-aged Los Angeles women who lost their successful husbands to younger women? She's torn between wanting him back and building a life of her own. We know the decision that William ultimately makes since Caroline is there at his deathbed mourning the imminent loss of her lifetime partner.
Anne Taylor Fleming works us deep within Caroline's mind and her marriage to William. We come to understand her stoicism when the affair happens and her reactions and decisions after he returns to her. While it's not a behavior pattern many of us would choose, quiet and defiant and forever haunted by the other woman, it works within the character of Caroline.
The protagonist of the second novella, A Married Man, is David, a middle-aged man with two young children and a beautiful wife he adores. Much like the couple in the first novella, David and his wife, Marcia, are soulmates very much in love with each other. They also have successful careers and they are thrilled with their children. His reaction when she has a one-time fling with another man is just the opposite of Caroline's. He is debilitated by the pain and anger he feels and he's unable to keep it bottled up inside. Marcia confesses immediately and is completely apologetic.
The apology doesn't carry much weight with David and he lashes out in many ways, both active and passive aggressive. He's treated like he has the problem, that he's the aggressor since he can't immediately forgive and he's dragged through counseling and medication and suggestions from his friends that he should just get past it. David's behavior is childish at times, but his rage is real and it takes him a while to realize where his terror is coming from.
I found David's story more captivating and thought-provoking, but that may be due to my gender and own personal history. At one point he's sitting in a group therapy session where another man and his wife are having a forgiveness ceremony. The other man is having obvious trouble saying the words to forgive his wife, and David is mentally encouraging him not to acquiesce and not to let her off that easy. I found myself rooting along with David for this man not to forgive.
That's the power of these two novellas. Anyone who has been married, had an affair, been the victim of an affair, or even contemplated giving into the temptation of an affair, will either recognize themselves, their raw emotions, or their fears somewhere in this book. This is an intelligent book that takes a realistic look at infidelity and the effect its heartbreak has on the families involved. It isn't written with a moralistic tone that glamorizes its victims. Neither Caroline nor David is a totally sympathetic character and at times I wanted to shake some sense into them. It's that blaze of pain and the realization that these loving marriages will never be the same that sears their very soul. Anne Taylor Fleming also doesn't demonize William or Marcia; they're real people who gave into attractions to people who weren't their spouses.
Once you're several pages into each novella, you can't put them down. Fortunately, they're quick reads since so much emotion is invested into each one. Being quick reads doesn't make them easy reads, though. There is no sense of contentment when you're done, just acknowledgment of your own emotions and the myriad questions that will haunt your mind. You want to place this book in the hands of someone you love and talk about it when they're done.
Anne Taylor Fleming has written a remarkable book about one of the worst fears of anyone in love. Her characters are believable and their pain is all too real. Find some time for yourself one day and read this book. Just be prepared to deal with your thoughts and emotions when you're done. If that was the author's aim when she wrote this book, she's succeeded admirably.
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