In Fidelity by Jack Wilson

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In Fidelity by Jack Wilson

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: In this 1970s-set novel, the central couple's relationship is tested by illness and extramarital sexual experiences. Moving from New England to Nigeria and back, the story asks what loyalty really requires when a once-strong connection has faded over time. Strongly reminiscent of John Updike in Part One, this is the male view of adultery.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 304 Date: October 2015
Publisher: Matador
ISBN: 9781784623838

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Dick and Christine Blodgett were only 22 when they got married in 1955. As the novel opens in 1974, it's clear their relationship is now precarious. A brief allegorical prologue, echoing Heraclitus, warns that a crisis will change the course of the marriage irrevocably: 'one day there was a storm…and the stream never returned to the [channel] it had known before.' The title of Chapter 1, 'A Premonition of Danger', reinforces that sense of foreboding. Driving on dark, icy roads, Dick and Christine fret about her health: a dental procedure revealed a serious problem with her gums for which she will soon need a biopsy.

From here Wilson delves into the past to show Dick and Christine's courtship and wedding. From the start, their sexual connection does not match up to their emotional bond, and they have difficulty consummating their marriage – a setup that recalls On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. Wilson does a great job of showing how such compatibility issues can hide under the surface: 'For all that the world could see, they were a happy, carefree, newlywed couple. And so they tried to convince themselves.'

Returning to the mid-1970s, we see the Blodgetts, now parents to two children, settled into their small-town New England community. They are particularly close with two other couples, including Carol and Walter. As Christine undergoes radical surgery to remove cancer and reconstruct her jaw, Dick, a law professor, finds himself turned off by Christine's disfigured face – and turned on by Carol's frequent flirtation at couples' dinner parties. 'I wonder what Carol would be like?' he asks himself. Although they never have sex, Christine learns of their fling.

The dynamic of Part One – 1970s America, domestic scenes and miniature dramas of marriage versus adultery – is strongly reminiscent of John Updike. The writing is solid even if the material is a little clichéd. Part Two, in which Dick moves to Nigeria on his own to teach, is so different in pace and content that there is little continuity between the two sections. It feels almost like the author had no idea how to conclude the story within the format he had created and so, in a deus ex machina move, transplanted it into a different realm.

There are competent descriptions of the African scenery and natives, but nothing remarkable in comparison to the myriad foreigner-abroad stories out there. Soon Dick meets a beautiful, sexually experienced Englishwoman named Daphne and they embark on an affair. The novel's erotic scenes are variable in quality, with the occasional phrase inducing a cringe, like 'his tongue slid into the orifice' and 'a smoldering, molten stirring in his loin.' The metaphorical connection between Africa and Daphne's body, 'an unexplored continent of delight to him,' is too facile. By contrast, the fact that Dick settles on one of the only other Anglos in town seems parochial, almost racist; why shouldn't Daphne be black?

But that is rather beside the point, which is that it is disappointingly stereotypical that an affair should be Dick's salvation. Moreover, flashbacks to Daphne's past are unrealistically sordid. Conceived out of wedlock and raised by a father who was paranoid about her sexuality, Daphne left her home in Buxton and travelled to London, where she was immediately conned into working at a brothel. It seems unimaginative and perhaps uncompassionate to have a plotline in which a reluctant prostitute uses her sexual skills to bring Dick (whose nickname must be a deliberate stand-in for his sexual organ) to new life.

By the time Christine and the kids visit Dick in Nigeria, he has broken with Daphne and tries to defend himself from Christine's accusations. So hypocritical is he that he doesn't feel compelled to admit that something was going on previously. Indeed, my central problem with the book is that the author seems quick to explain away Dick's behaviour through, for instance, Christine's frigidity and later disfigurement. Walter excuses Dick's dalliance with Carol due to his own previous extramarital affair; because Carol was acting in retaliation, he tells Dick, 'you were an unwitting actor in a play composed by others.' Dick's brother conveys a similar message, basically a shrugging of the shoulders: lots of men stray; you were starved for sex – who could blame you?

The conclusion is open-ended, suggesting that Dick might start a new life with other partners but still salve his conscience by sticking with Christine through cancer treatments. Why should he get it both ways? Is that really fidelity? Something about the self-justifying tone of this novel sticks in my craw. A more balanced book would give the wife's perspective, too, as Carol Shields did in Happenstance, or like Lauren Groff recently did to great success in Fates and Furies. Capably written, this, but you'll need a feminist-friendly novel as a palate-cleanser afterwards.

Further reading suggestion: As a novel with a similar theme, we highly recommend On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. For a more lighthearted take, try Unfaithfully Yours by Nigel Williams.

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