I can’t stand cheaters—the romantic kind, not the board game kind. (Okay, both kinds.) Trust in relationships is so important that I shudder when anything that purports to be entertaining makes infidelity seem okay. That’s why I don’t like The Notebook, and that’s why I regret seeing Something Borrowed, although I do like Ginnifer Goodwin.
I read a book recently that changed my mind. I’m not suddenly endorsing cheating on your significant other; fear not. I have to stop putting up my immediate wall against anything involved cheaters, though. In refusing to be entertained by any instance of infidelity, I would have missed out on one of the best-written novels I’ve encountered in a long time. It was published a long time ago, but the emotions are timeless. The Power and the Glory is the Graham Greene novel I hear most recommended, but I will forever champion The End of the Affair.
I do have one warning, though. The title is quite clear: this book is about an actual, literal, sexual, extramarital affair. If you have been affected by such situations in the past (or present), this is not the book for you. My struggles have never gone there, though, so I took a chance. As the title also indicates, the story focuses on the end of the affair.
When the book begins, the affair is already over. Maurice Bendrix, a writer in post-WWII London, sees his old lover, Sarah Miles, by chance one day. They have not seen each other for two years since Sarah suddenly broke off their four-year affair. Bendrix never knew why she ended things, so he hires a private detective to follow her. We sympathize with the honorable but boring husband, the jealous lover seeking an answer, and the confused wife who is searching for more than she knows. What she finds is revealed slowly, in elegant detail, and the hearts of the lovers are broken open for us.
SPOILER ALERT: Here be spoilers.
Sarah finds God. Graham Greene is known for his Catholic novels, and this is one of them. Although Bendrix never knew it, when Sarah left him, she didn’t take up with another lover. She took up with God. Through Sarah’s diary, we see her spiritual journey, from Realist meetings to awkward moments with an unusually realistic priest. Although we see the story through Bendrix’s eyes, it is about Sarah’s spiritual journey, and how it turns Bendrix’s heart.
End spoiler (but there are still surprises).
As I mentioned, the writing style of this book blew me away. It reminded me of a less intense and philosophical version of the Chesterton’s style in The Man Who Was Thursday (reviewed here last month). It’s a period piece, so it has references to air raids and anarchists, but in a cool, steampunk sort of way. The writing hits that balance between straightforward and lyrical that I love so much. Greene even manages to switch points of view without sounding like Twilight or the Baby-sitters Club.
Now I’m just gushing. I can’t stop telling people how I was surprised by this book and by its absence from my literary sphere for so long. This will be a book I return to again and again, to unravel the mystery and follow the journey toward freedom.