Although the back cover of my edition calls this a collection of interconnected stories, this book by Laurie Colwin read to me like a novella. Each of the eight chapters could perhaps stand alone as an account of a moment in a relationship, but they’re richer together. And arranged chronologically, with the exception of the initial first-person chapter, the combined stories of moments provide a complete picture—or something approaching a complete picture anyway.
The relationship at the center of the book is that of Josephine (Billy) Delielle and Francis (Frank) Clemens. The only thing they appear to have in common is that they’re both married. Billy is young and sloppy in her dress and housekeeping. Francis is older and meticulous. Billy values privacy and boundaries. She doesn’t want to talk about their spouses, and she hates visiting Francis’s home. Francis wants their lives to be an open book to each other. He tends to snoop around Billy’s house, and he talks about his wife far more than Billy would like.
With great skill, Colwin shows how these two lovers attempt to create their own world, without disengaging from their separate lives. The relationship appears doomed from the start, as Francis notes in the book’s single first-person chapter:
Our feelings have edges and spines and prickles like a cactus, or porcupine. Our parting when it comes will not be simple, either. Depicted it would look like one of those medieval beasts that have fins, fur, scales, feathers, claws, wings, and horns. In a world apart from everyone else, we are Frank and Billy, with no significance to anyone but the other. Oh, the terrible privacy and loneliness of love affairs!
Perhaps Francis’s constant attempts to understand Billy’s life and to tell her about his is a way to take away that privacy and loneliness and make their affair into something that will last. Yet every time he learns something new about Billy, he is hurt by it. Billy resists his attempts at understanding, and her reluctance creates an uneasy balance, with Francis constantly looking for more than Billy will give. Sex with Francis is not a problem for Billy, but intimacy with him is. I found Francis’s pressure to be off-putting, as if he wanted to possess Billy—or his idea of Billy. When Francis learns more about Billy, he tries to dismiss it. He wouldn’t believe that she actually enjoyed nature walks with her husband or could be interested in reptiles.
This book is neither a diatribe against extramarital affairs nor a celebration of passion outside marriage. Billy and Frank are in love, but it’s an uncomfortable love, not just because of their marriages but because of who they are. But the pleasure they take in each other is genuine. Will their parting, if it comes, be the monstrous complication Francis predicts? I have my own thoughts about how things turned out—and about the other loves in these pages—but Colwin doesn’t press a particular conclusion on readers. For me, though, this is a story about intimacy and how necessary it is for a lasting, fulfilling relationship.