“You didn’t invent infidelity.”
The film version of Strangers When We Meet is one of my favourites. This 1960 film stars Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas as married (to other people) neighbours who meet and have an affair. The film is splendid, IMO, with terrific performances from the two main stars; it captures the nuances, excitement and agonies of an extramarital affair.
Now to the novel from Evan Hunter AKA Ed McBain …
Architect Larry Cole, married to Eve, and the father of two little boys, lives in a modern suburban estate that he loathes. Early in Larry’s career, he won an architectural prize, but now, years later, the reality is that he designs ugly buildings and homes he dislikes but that fit the market tastes/demands. He has a loving, beautiful wife, but somehow … discontent creeps in, and then he meets Maggie, a gorgeous slightly younger married woman who lives in the same neighbourhood. Maggie is married to Don and has one son.
Is Larry’s discontent stoked by his meeting with Roger Altar, a successful writer and bachelor who employs Larry to build a home? Altar and Larry are the same age and Altar, a consummate bachelor, always has a fresh woman at his side, promptly discarded like a pair of old socks. There’s a synergy between the men, and there’s a subtle air of comparison of their lives.
When Larry meets Maggie, there’s an instant attraction, and Maggie, who’s no novice to infidelity, recognises the signs. Soon Larry and Maggie begin an affair which begins at a cheap run-down motel.
Larry is the novel’s focus here. In the midst of this passionate affair which begins to define his life and his career, he finds himself confiding in the writer Altar, whose cynical view of women and sexual relationships doesn’t help Larry much.
“I’ve got a closetful of manufacturer’s labels. Architect, Husband, Father, Son, Striver, Brooder, man! I sew the labels into my own clothes. but the suits never fit me. Underneath all the crap, there’s me! And I’m never really me, never the Larry Cole I want to be until I’m with –” he cut himself off, suddenly wary.
“Sure,” Altar said, “and then you fly, don’t you? Then you’re bigger and stronger and handsomer and wittier, aren’t you? Then you can ride your white charger against the black knight! Then you can storm the enemy bastions!”
Another confidante is Felix, a casual acquaintance who welcomes Larry to an “international fraternity” and who, guessing Larry’s secret advises caution. According to Felix, if your wife suspects “then you haven’t got a wife any more, you’ve got the New York branch of the FBI.” Once Felix realises how Larry feels about Maggie, he recommends dropping the affair as it’s too consuming.
Larry realises that Felix, butcher by trade, is a completely different person as a philandering husband. Felix is a “cynical boudoir philosopher” who becomes the type of man he’d like to be–not a butcher, but a suave seducer of women. And yet… even while Larry grasps this about Felix, he doesn’t grasp that Maggie also fills a need. Is Larry’s married life constricting? Or is Larry just stymied in his career? Does anyone ever end up with the sort of life they wanted or planned? Felix, who has a very low opinion of women, doesn’t believe in Great Love, but he believes that all married people have affairs.
“It’s a big soapy dishpan of boredom. That’s the truth. And no husband can understand that soapy dishpan. And a woman can’t explain it to another woman because they’ve all got their hands in that same soapy boredom. So all a man has to be is understanding.
Yes baby, I know, I know, you’ve got a miserable life, here’re some flowers. Here’s some perfume, here’s ‘I love you,’ take off your pants.’ Bang!”
This novel was published in 1958, and it oozes the shifting views towards sexuality. Straight to the punch: in parts, the novel has not aged well. This is clearly a novel which reflects its times in the very typical male attitudes of the towards women and sex. And that’s not a good thing. In fact, at times, I found myself wincing.
There are scenes when Maggie is telling Larry, “no, no,” for example, and Larry hears “yes, yes.” (Actually I’m not sure that we’re supposed to hear mixed messages.) There’s another scene which depicts Maggie’s sexual frustration when she greets her husband at the door, sans undies, but her ‘dirty talk’ (mild) turns him off. Finally Maggie tells Larry about her relationship with a young man named Buck. Maggie’s version of events is ludicrous so I’m glad that Larry called her on it.
Still…. in spite of its dated view of life, women and sex, the novel has a lot going for it, and I’m glad I read it. The timeless lure of the affair is very well portrayed. Larry is discontented with life, wasting his talent on projects he doesn’t care about. He’s looking at middle age, and yes … he’s bored. Maggie appears to fill the gaps. Suddenly his life is exciting and unpredictable, but the affair doesn’t solve anything and ultimately creates turmoil. Many scenes between Larry and Eve are pitch-perfect–the way in which Larry picks a fight with Eve for no reason, for example:
He felt anger full upon him now, and he thought, We’re going to have a fight, but he was helpless to stop the anger or the argument which he was certain would erupt around them, He didn’t even know why he was angry, and his inability to pinpoint the cause of his irritation made him angrier still.
One last point: Larry “found it impossible to conceive of anyone ever having an affair before the telephone was invented,” What would he make of cell phones? Have they made infidelity easier or more difficult?
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