Summer is the time for flings and affairs, a season that evokes daydreams about what could have been. But if you don't fancy yourself straying, books are an ideal way to live vicariously. You can explore all the naughty things you can't quite bring yourself to do, fantasize about the love you long for, or, on the more serious side, plumb the pages for truths about our human capacity for ecstasy and pain.
It's a luxury to ride the crest of a character's emotional life, from the agony of betrayal, to passion's joys. Here are some recent titles that take a fresh look at illicit love.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
By Helen Simonson, hardcover, 368 pages, Random House, list price: $25
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a lovely, old-fashioned story about the blossoming of an unlikely affair between the retired and chivalrous Major Pettigrew and Jasmina Ali, the local Pakistani store owner. Part of the story's delight is that both the Major and Jasmina are widowed, with no expectation of a second chance at love. Don't even try to resist this book's charm; just enjoy it. As the two protagonists' romance unfolds, you'll warm to the humor in the Major's dealings with his vapid, upwardly mobile son; and appreciate Simonson's handling of some very unsubtle racial prejudices in contemporary English village life. Even though the Major can't always manage to meet his own high standards, you'll be eager to support him as he figures out what love means to him. (In this passage, Jasmina Ali prepares tea for Major Pettigrew, as he absorbs the news of his brother's death. "It was strange, he thought, to listen again to a woman clattering teacups in the kitchen.")
The Hand That First Held Mine
By Maggie O'Farrell, hardcover, 352 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price: $25
In The Hand That First Held Mine, a love affair launches Lexie Sinclair's career. Innes Kent is an older, urban sophisticate who plucks young Lexie from sheltered 1950s suburbia and beds her in the big city. Confident, opinionated and sharp, Lexie takes to her new milieu — London's bustling art and literary scene. She can handle her men, even as she comes to loathe the one who fathered her son. But that isn't all there is to Lexie. Underneath her tough demeanor is a woman with a shrewd understanding of her complex emotional life. A seemingly separate story follows Elina, a Finnish emigre, and her boyfriend, Ted, through their son's first weeks. While the haze of birth obscures Elina's thinking, something much thornier interferes with Ted's psyche. The two story lines, each with its own compelling view of love, coalesce in a dramatic and surprising ending. (At the opening of the novel, O'Farrell writes that the trees are stirring in the wind: "It is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.")
The Other Family
By Joanna Trollope, paperback, 336 pages, Touchstone, list price: $15
The Other Family spins an affair all the way out to examine the dilemma of the second family. The sudden death of celebrated crooner Richie Rossiter leaves his second family stunned. But more shocking is the fact that Richie never married the woman who mothered his three daughters and caused him to abandon his wife and son. He may have been a famous heartthrob, but Richie's aversion to committed love is exposed posthumously when his will is read. Trollope masterfully explores each family member's confused reactions to the difference between the man they thought they knew and the one who left them in the lurch. It's a measure of Trollope's skill that although you sympathize with all of the bereaved, you're never quite sure whose side to take in the ensuing entanglements. Thus, you'll be pleased that by the end of the book, each character has found a way to reclaim hope out of love's cinders. (In this excerpt, Richie Rossiter's family returns home from the hospital, mute and in shock, after his unexpected death.)
By Eleanor Catton, hardcover, 320 pages, Reagan Arthur Books, list price: $23.99
The Rehearsal,, an edgy debut from New Zealander Eleanor Catton, orbits around scandal in the high school. The music teacher, Mr. Saladin, is having an affair with Victoria, one of his students. Catton uses a quirky, middle-aged, female saxophone teacher to investigate the ramifications of this affair for Victoria's sister and her schoolmates. Wily and manipulative, the saxophone teacher plays her female pupils and their mothers like pawns. The sax teacher is a central character, but she's never named.
A second story line follows Stanley (think twisted reflection of A Streetcar Named Desire), who is oppressed by his usually absent and always inappropriate father. Stanley auditions for and matriculates at the "Institute," a local drama school. Embarking on their theatrical training, Stanley and his classmates are forced into brutal personal exposure, stripped of their identities by a small group of zealous instructors. Like the saxophone teacher, these instructors have no names; they are known only by their titles.
There are few ways to anchor yourself in this book. In addition to the anonymity of key adults, there is virtually no description of place. One assumes the story is set in New Zealand, given that the school year ends in November. Time is marked through a stark recitation of the days of the week for the saxophone teacher's story, and the months of the year for Stanley's adventures at the Institute. The detail is in the oozing sexual tension — between Victoria and her high school teacher, between uninitiated and obsessional adolescents, and between would-be lesbians, to name a few. The two stories collide at the end, leaving you with more questions than answers. Satisfaction derives from the extraordinarily inventive writing and a plot that works on multiple levels. (In this passage, the saxophone teacher explains that when you breathe into the instrument, "you're not just giving it life — you're giving it your life.")
By Paul Auster, paperback, 320 pages, Picador, list price: $15
For another truly unsettling book, try Invisible. The most startling love affair takes place between the protagonist, Adam Walker, and his sister. Before you say "ugh," read the book. In wry reportorial style, Auster tantalizes the reader by describing what appears to be the same set of events from three separate perspectives. Even though each narrative is credible, they all conflict with one another. There's an unsolved murder, or maybe not; an enigmatic Columbia professor with a girlfriend who's crazy, or maybe not; and Adam himself, who is or is not a reliable storyteller.
Invisible is vintage Auster — beautifully crafted with characters who elicit empathy and pity, and a plot that challenges even the most flexible of nonlinear readers; by the end, you have no idea who has actually had affairs with whom, let alone whom to believe in general. No matter how savvy you are, when you're done, you'll need to return to the beginning to see if there is a way to untangle this Mobius strip of a narrative. What's engaging here is not only the compassion you'll feel for Adam and some of the other characters, but also the tug of justice unfinished. (Read as Adam, a sophomore at Columbia, encounters Rudolf Born, a French visiting professor, at a noisy New York party. Adam is drawn into Born's charismatic orbit — against his better judgment.)
Hold Me Tight & Tango Me Home
By Maria Finn, paperback, 223 pages, Algonquin Books, list price: $13.95
What to do when your spouse leaves you for someone else? Tango! In her memoir, Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home, Maria Finn confronts her sorrow and anger over her husband's affair by tangoing her way across the globe. Part of Finn's story of recovery concerns the friends she makes along the way. She also gives us a course in tango technique. Tango embraces sexy and sad; Finn shares the lyrics of melancholy and longing set to some of tango's most celebrated tunes.
Although Finn supplies us with fascinating bits of tango's history and cultural adaptations (did you know Finland has a rich tango tradition, or that the Russians are tango crazy?), the real reason to recommend this book is for inspiration. Thumb your nose at your partner's betrayal: dance your way through it! ("Tango understood my broken heart," Finn writes in this excerpt. "It beckons on a night when you're feeling lonely; it promises escape from the grind of daily life.")