Sarah and Nathan are just your average American couple: still in love after more than 10 years together, they have a toddler daughter and an infant son; Nathan is a well-regarded novelist poised for commercial success with the release of his new book, Infidelity. Sure, Sarah isn’t writing poetry much anymore, and she hates her day job, but sacrifices must be made in the name of family. Then Sarah learns that Nathan’s new book isn’t all drawn from his imagination. He cheated on her, at a writer’s retreat, while she was pregnant with their son.
Destroyed by Nathan’s confession, Sarah finds herself fixating on the affair she might have had—with an old friend who confessed his love for her on the eve of her marriage to Nathan. Though things never progressed further than an email flirtation, Sarah puts Rajiv on the list of things she gave up to become a wife and mother, and spends much of the book trying to figure out if that tally evens out at the end.
Heartbreaking and darkly humorous, Husband and Wife takes readers through the fallout from Nathan’s revelation. Infidelity has been the topic of novels since time immemorial, but Leah Stewart (Body of a Girl, The Myth of You and Me) is an acute social observer, and her take on this oldest of stories goes beyond the simple chronicling of an affair to ask deeper questions about how people change once they become adults, mates and eventually parents. Stewart answered a few questions about the book from her home in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she lives with her husband and two children.
Your previous novel, the Myth of You & Me, dealt with a rupture between friends, something that gets far less screen—or in this case, page!—time than a topic like infidelity. What made you tackle the topic? Did you worry about being able to bring fresh insight to it?
When I saw Todd Haynes' movie I'm Not There, I was really struck by the Heath Ledger/Charlotte Gainsbourg storyline. Their characters begin a romance as artists in perfect harmony with each others' priorities and needs, and then, after marriage and children, are pulled apart by the fact that she changes and he doesn't, and his resulting infidelity. This had me thinking about the affect of motherhood on both marriage and a woman's artistic identity, issues which had been on my mind not only because of personal experience but because of what I'd observed in the lives of my friends. Nathan's infidelity, and the resulting crisis in his marriage to Sarah, gave me an impetus for Sarah's examination of where her life has brought her and how happy she is with that.
I was worried about bringing fresh insight to the topic, but I always worry about that, and the only viable course of action with any well-trod topic is to focus on what interests you most about it and so hope to make your treatment of it particular. One of the things that was most interesting to me was the question of forgiveness, and whether the ability to forgive suggests weakness or strength. (This was an issue in my last novel as well.)
Sarah feels that becoming a mother and a wife has meant losing touch with herself as an artist, a poet. As a mother yourself, is that something you also struggle with?
It's something I struggled with in the year after the birth of my first child, when I didn't write at all and felt increasingly unmoored. Being a writer is such a large part of my identity that I had to find a way to go back to it, or I would have certainly become depressed. Sarah says at some point that being an artist requires a certain amount of selfishness. You have to insist on your right to the time to do the work, and on the value of that work and that time. Sometimes it's difficult to do be selfish in that way in the face of a small child's needs, especially as many women I know, whether they work or not, believe they're supposed to be perfect mothers, a belief the culture certainly reinforces. So I know some women who have set the artist part of themselves aside, or at least put it on hold, and chosen to make being a mother their primary identity. Having talked to them about that choice, and glimpsed that possibility in my own life, I'm curious about it. What do you gain? What do you lose?
One of the major themes in Husband & Wife is whether women can really have it all. Do you feel that they can?
Only if they have supportive husbands and/or good childcare.
How do men and women approach being a parent differently? Why do you think men are more able to keep their roles as person/father separate?
In the beginning, in my case anyway, part of it is hormones. As time goes on my guess is that the essential difference is in cultural concepts of motherhood vs. fatherhood. "Mother" is an identity in a way that "Father" is not. We still, as a culture, don't like for women to say that motherhood isn't enough for them, whereas men are expected to want more out of life than fatherhood. I was just talking to a friend, a male writer, about this. He's written articles on fatherhood and been showered with affection for the sentiments he expresses, and he said he gets credit just for saying he loves his children and wants to spend time with them. The bar is set a lot higher for women. We're supposed to love our children and want to spend time with them, so we have to go well beyond that before we qualify as good mothers. And often ambitious women want to succeed at motherhood as much as they have at other aspects of life. I have noticed that while women fret generally about being good mothers, some men fret specifically about being a good father to a son, which must be about worrying that they're not sufficiently manly to teach manliness to a boy. So I assume that's where men are feeling the cultural pressure to fulfill a gender role.
Many times Sarah wishes Nathan hadn't told her about the other woman in his life—and she has never told him about her feelings for Rajiv. Is honesty really the best policy?
My equivocal answer is: Not always. Nathan's honesty provokes Sarah to an evaluation of her life that perhaps will help her in the long run. But it also adds to her burdens at a time when she already has a lot of them. If his secret was making him behave differently than he otherwise would have, perhaps it was best to confess it. Otherwise he could have saved them a lot of heartache by keeping it to himself. And when Sarah keeps quiet, that's complicated, too. On the one hand she's choosing to forgo the revenge she'd get from hurting Nathan the same way he hurt her. But she's also retaining the power she has as the aggrieved party.
The fact that Sarah and Nathan have two children makes his betrayal worse, while at the same time making it harder, perhaps, for Sarah to refuse to take him back, since it's not only their romantic union at stake, but the preservation of the family unit. At one point in the novel Sarah says that "you become your choices. You embody them." Do you think forgiveness is a choice? How about love?
I started to say yes, I think both those things are choices, and then I hesitated. One of the things that fascinates me about human behavior is the degree to which we're programmed to make the choices we do. I've witnessed several friends endure difficult relationships for months or years before they end them. For a while they can't end them, and then at some point they can. So eventually they make a choice to walk away, but why were they able to make it then when they couldn't before? Something must have changed, in the situation, in their feelings, to make the choice possible. Here, for Sarah, the choice to end her marriage is theoretically possible, but one of the things she's wrestling with is that she's not sure she's capable of making it.
Without giving too much away, would you say your novel has a happy ending?
I'd say it has an adult version of a happy ending.
What are you working on next?
I'm working on a novel about siblings, and Cincinnati, and the ballet.