Read 07/07/2016 to 14/07/2016
Rating: 3 stars
I can’t remember why I decided to read a Louise Doughty book, whether it was a recommendation by a friend or a review I read. I picked this one up from the library, anyway.
It’s rare that a book of around 400 pages takes me a week to read, but this was a difficult book for me to read. On the face of it, the story centres on a trial involving two people who have been having an affair, Dr Y and Mr X. At first we don’t know why they are on trial. We know how they are connected. Their affair begins early in the book. On the face of it, the book is about their affair. In reality, it’s about something completely different.
It got off to a good start. I read the prologue as I sat in the waiting room at the dentist, waiting for my annual check up. The tension built slowly and by the time I reached the end of the prologue I was nicely anxious going into my appointment. That was when I thought it was about a court case involving two people who had been having an affair and found themselves, somehow, in a legal pickle.
The first chapter, in setting the scene and describing how an illicit relationship starts, was quietly sensual. Doughty explores what it is to be a successful woman in her 50s in a settled, sexless marriage, and how male attention can be both welcome and bemusing but acting on it no longer inevitable.
There were elements to the initial sexual encounter that the two main characters, Dr Y and Mr X, share that jarred, though. I think as context to a woman taking a step she feels is empowering, Doughty riffs on the meaning of Emily Davison’s sacrifice, but makes her character naïve and mundane in her opinions. I suppose to set up what comes next. It felt misguided to me, even in the context of what the book is about.
She died so that women like me … could take things for granted; that we vote, we work, expect our husbands to unload the dishwasher. We don’t have to give our husbands everything we own when we marry them. We don’t even have to marry them if we don’t want to. We can sleep with whomever we like … just like men do. No one takes us to the village square and stones us any more, or places metal torture devices in our mouths for talking too much, or drowns us in a pond because a man we rejected has accused us of being a witch. We are safe, surely, now, in this time, in this country, we are safe.
It’s an odd range of things for a woman who has risen to the top of a male dominated profession to be thankful for. And even though those specific punishments for being female no longer happen, there are different ways of censuring and censoring women now. I didn’t want to feel that this successful woman was so mundane in her thinking about feminist issues. I wanted Doughty to help move the narrative about what feminism has achieved forward. I wanted a narrative that acknowledged what society needs to do to make gender irrelevant where it has no reason to be a factor.
At this stage of the book Doughty has Dr Y, a protein sequencer who is at the top of her professional game, have very mundane feelings about her life. She is lonely and feels unloved. Enough to be preyed upon by one of those smooth bastard men who use women sexually in order to achieve something completely unrelated to the sex. Mr X is a bit of a cartoon bastard, all nice suits and ruthless power plays, keeping her dangling in her desperation to have something exciting in her life. The way their affair unfolds felt like pure fantasy and required a lot of effort on my part to find believable. It was like a bad tv drama at times, and it meant I worked out the truth about Mr X early on, so that the ending felt flat for me.
I tried to turn my annoyance level down so that I could give the story a chance to develop, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what a fool this woman was, and how unempowered. She’s in this relationship supposedly just for the sex, but she really wants it to be a relationship with an emotional connection. She wants it to be love. At first I thought it was a clumsy commentary on the way women’s wombs make us want more than just sex from a relationship. Later, I realised that it was Doughty’s way of unbalancing the reader when something more serious happens.
The book is sprinkled with passing references to chauvinism in the workplace. Doughty has Dr Y talk about the issues of being a woman in science married to a man in science, bringing up a young family, and not having the same career progression as him as a result. Issues faced by career women in other professional areas. It felt like an aside, though. A whinge rather than righteous anger. Passive.
And then Dr Y is raped.
Reading the rape scene made me feel sick. Rape scenes always do, but this was particularly awful because it was so chummy. The way Doughty got across how a woman can feel on top of the world one minute, high on the thrill of getting away with an affair, feeling sexually alive, and then find herself alone with a man who has picked up on her self confidence and decides to take it away in an almost casual way summed up how misogyny works. Misogyny doesn’t have to lead to physical rape, but it occupies that space where hatred of women means doing whatever you feel entitled to do in order to stop women feeling good about themselves and to make them feel afraid.
The book felt more serious after that. It made me feel very sad. Doughty described the aftermath of rape very effectively. Most women, without experiencing it themselves, can imagine what rape would be like. Most women have had lives that include being single, going out, having fun, and finding themselves in situations where it could so easily tip into rape. Because some men have such a sense of entitlement about women, and are so reluctant to civilise themselves enough not to act on it, that they think their being ‘overbearing’ is the fault of the woman.
I felt very upset for a while after reading that part of the book.
The rape changes the nature of the affair between Dr Y and Mr X. As Dr Y realises she can’t report it, because of the affair, because of needing to protect her family, her lover and her own reputation, she starts to suffer PTSD. She reaches crisis point at a dinner party thrown by friends, where a story about a politician assaulting a woman is discussed. The attitude of her hostess, who Dr Y views as having a charmed life, makes her speak honestly.
Events move on, and we find out why Dr Y and Mr X are in court.
The court scenes brought more stomach turning detail. Just enough for the imagination to grab hold of and visualise. The back and forth of the prosecution and defence could have been done better. I found Doughty’s reliance on ‘everyone’s seen courtroom dramas on TV’, rather than write about it in the context of this story, a bit weak.
The ending didn’t do it for me. After all that had gone before, it felt flat and too tidy. I wish Doughty had stopped at the verdict, left me dangling, free to imagine what happened next.
There was a lot in this book that I didn’t like, but there was also enough good to make me think the core was well written. It certainly made me reassess the experiences of people close to me who have had affairs, been the mistress or the wronged party. It made me think about experiences I’ve had where I’ve thought I was safe, understood the rules, and found that my behaviour has been taken as some sort of invitation. It also made me think about what the situation would have to be for me to fall into having an affair, as a married woman. It would have to be a very particular set of circumstances, because although I could understand how Dr Y ended up doing what she did in the context of the story, I couldn’t imagine doing it myself. I could, by the end of the book, understand that being a certain age, in a relationship where your other half no longer makes you feel desirable or exciting, and having a stranger make you feel interesting might make you more receptive to having an affair, or a one night stand.
Altogether, not the cheeriest read. I’m glad it’s over! I’m going to read something less harrowing next.