Since Madame Bovary first left her stable marriage for the arms of Rodolfo in Flaubert’s classic, a basic adultery narrative has been repeated in countless novels, films and television shows: A woman bored with a prosaic marriage flees for the unknown, not because of who the new man is, but for what he represents. Kim Wright adheres fully to this model in her achingly honest debut, but updates it for modern America with such finesse that, remarkably, it still feels fresh.
In Wright’s iteration, Elyse Bearden is a distracted artist flying home to North Carolina from a conference when she meets Gerry Kincaid—a tall, easy conversationalist from Boston who seems to be as unhappy in his marriage as she is in her own. Though it’s been difficult for Elyse to point out the exact problems with her husband Phil, essentially a good man and devoted father, she feels something with the handsome stranger that she hasn’t felt for Phil in a long time. Elyse and Gerry strike up an intense relationship over the phone, eventually consummating it in several clandestine visits, and Elyse begins to fantasize about a new life for herself and her daughter.
Though the affair feels a bit clichéd at times, Wright sets her story apart with the very relatable ways that Elyse works through her problems—not with Gerry, but at home in North Carolina. She sits through increasingly competitive book club gatherings with patronizing women friends, many of whom are struggling in their own right; she submits to the humiliation of couples counseling at the hands of their pastor, also a family friend; she tries to spice up what has become a totally routine sex life with her husband. Wright gets the details exactly right, perfectly conveying the excruciating banality of modern suburban life. And Elyse, perhaps because of her flaws, is an incredibly relatable and likeable narrator and the consummate guide to this universal story.
Rebecca Shapiro is an assistant editor at the Random House Publishing Group.