It’s pretty hard to write freshly about extramarital affairs --- Tolstoy and Flaubert did it rather well, after all --- and still more difficult to be honest and accurate about how a marriage feels from the inside (if you’ve never been married, you don’t know; if you are married, it feels disloyal). Christina Schwarz attempts both in SO LONG AT THE FAIR, limiting herself rigorously to a single crucial day in the life of a not-so-romantic triangle. Jon and Ginny are a childless couple, neither entirely happy nor desperately mismatched; Freddi is Jon’s advertising agency colleague and mistress.
Schwarz does well with Jon’s sense of being “unmoored” --- his guilty, shifting states of mind as he vacillates between genuine devotion to Ginny and fierce attraction to Freddi. But this is not a novel told from a single-pointed perspective. We also hear what Ginny and Freddi are thinking --- both women are nervous, angry and mostly keeping their true feelings under wraps --- and Jon’s workmate Kaiser, who knows about the affair but hasn’t (yet) spilled the beans. And, just for good measure, we get a creepy look inside the brain of Ethan, the obsessive-compulsive guy with a crush on Freddi.
Schwarz, it seems, wants to examine the affair in Rashomon-like fashion, suggesting that there is no whole, absolute truth to a marriage but only a range of fragmentary visions. She keeps us in suspense about what Jon will do, whether Ginny will find out, and how Freddi and Ethan’s story will develop. All this is plausible. I loved her opening scene, a fight between Jon and Ginny about nothing --- and everything. Schwarz grasps the way one takes the temperature of a vulnerable marriage as with a sick child, alternately feeling safe or uncertain or furious or blessed. She gets its massive presence in an individual’s life, a presence in which love or desire or contentment becomes almost irrelevant.
Jon’s mother told him, when he first became engaged to Ginny, that “marriage is a heavy thing,” and late in the book he realizes she was right: “[H]e saw suddenly, vividly, that that heaviness, that fabric of understandings and misunderstandings, of events witnessed, celebrated, and mourned, of dependable support and casual betrayal, of happy occasions of agreement and of never-ending accommodations both willing and grudging, that union, enduring despite insults and neglect, relentlessly invested with hope, had become the bulk of his life.”
If Schwarz had left it at that, I would have found SO LONG AT THE FAIR an absorbing, intelligent book. However, she chose not only to play with multiple viewpoints and numerous flashbacks, but also to lard the novel with an italicized subplot, a skeletal, murky tale of love and violence from 1963. Its relevance to the main story doesn’t become clear until close to the end of the novel, when we find out how the modern protagonists are related through their parents’ older ties. I can’t say more than that without giving away the plot; suffice it to say that it involves rape, revenge and a near-fatal accident.
I understand that Schwarz might want to use this backstory to suggest how the secrets and dramas of the past ripple out to touch other lives and generations. But I became so confused by the double narratives that at one point I had to make a diagram of the characters and their connections to one another! Old-fashioned historical nove