After I finished Molly McCloskey’s eloquent, thought-provoking novel Straying, I thought about the title. What is the definition of ‘straying?’ The word evokes the idea that someone … or some thing … wanders off the path. Not intentionally. No never intentionally–but an aimless, purposeless wandering off. And that brings me to the book’s plot: Straying is the story of a young American ex-pat who travels to Ireland, gets a job, and marries. Alice, a journalist in a stalled career, has no particular plans when she arrives in Ireland “at the tail end of the 80s.” She makes connections and drifts into a job in Sligo as a barmaid. Here she meets Eddie, a quiet, older man, who imports furniture. While Eddie seems perfect husband material, Alice feels a tug of resistance.
And then, one night, I had what felt like a conversion experience. I allowed myself to accept, with what seemed my whole heart, a future with Eddie. It wasn’t a decision (even allowed isn’t the right word), and that was why it felt like something I could trust.
All the right boxes are checked, and so they marry. Eddie buys them a lovely home, and is kind and thoughtful to his younger wife. Why then does the marriage go wrong?
In the novel, Alice is now a middle-aged woman who’s spent nomadic years working for non profits abroad. She returns to Ireland after wandering the world being exposed to some of the planet’s greatest miseries, and she finds herself alone with the memories of her brief marriage and an affair. Alice reminisces about Eddie and their marriage, still trying to unravel the motives for her actions decades later, yet even deeper than these troubling memories which are entwined with thoughts about her decisions, Alice deeply mourns her mother. By far the strongest connection in the book exists between Alice and her mother–even in death.
Now that Alice’s life is far removed from the notion of home and children, she finds herself thinking more about her mother and some of the conversations they had, especially those that took place towards the end of her mother’s life when “she often sounded distracted, as though she had caught sight of something approaching in the distance, something she couldn’t quite make out.” People who reach middle age (or late middle age) are fortunate indeed if their parents are still alive, for it’s only with age that we can possibly begin to understand our parents.
Straying is essentially the story of an affair, yet it’s also a story of loss,
Beyond the end of the lawn, the upper half of the Protestant church, which dominates the Crescent, looms like a giant risen from slumber, and when the night is cold and wet and moonlight falls on the yew tree and its needles glint like tinsel, the spectacle of it all is more than satisfying–for though I lament that narrowing of world that comes with age, I know that, like all children, I overlooked much and took everything for granted, and that even into the early years of adulthood, when I thought about the world at all in that way, I mistakenly assumed that all of its good, beautiful things would come around again, and then again, and again, until the time was right for me to pluck them. Now I am old enough to know that there are people I would like to see again whom I have already seen for the last time, there are places I dream of returning to that I will never revisit, and that though a few things do come around again and offer themselves, many more do not.
After finishing this wonderful book, I found myself puzzling over Alice’s behaviour. How did she drift into marriage? How did she drift into this affair? She certainly never intended to hurt anyone, yet that was the ultimate result.
The title has a double meaning: Alice’s affair but also the aimlessness of her early life and marriage. Yet was she really aimless? Bad things happen in life. Take disease for example. We don’t choose disease, but sometimes it happens anyway, in spite of our plans or our tactics of avoidance. But can we say the same thing about marriage and/or infidelity? Do they just happen or are they murky attempts to establish or demolish something we don’t even recognize that we are seeking?
I’m a big believer in the idea that most of the time, people have a way of getting what they want. I’m not talking about money or health; I’m talking about the subtle manipulation of circumstance: I didn’t mean to let the dog off leash; I didn’t mean to have an affair.
If you like books that delve into the murky waters of motivation, then you should enjoy Straying. While Alice chews over the choices she made, because yes they were choices even though she didn’t see things that way, this leaves room for the reader to speculate about the deep motivations for the decisions she made. Alice is a sensitive, thoughtful narrator who is still chewing over her actions decades later, and perhaps because she doesn’t make excuses, I liked her even more.
I’ll be reading this author again. This is a wonderful, wonderful book.
I recall a single midnight downpour, parked in Eddie’s car above the beach at Rosses Point, the world through the windscreen a rich black smear, as though painted in oils.
(Alternate title: When Light is Like Water)