Wednesday, September 16, 2015
Book Review: Surface
By Jami Deise
Thanks to the recent Ashley Madison hack, adultery has been in the news in a big way. Not only have the email addresses belonging to famous Christians been caught in this web, but hundreds of addresses belonging to government employees and politicians have also been discovered. Who hasn’t been found there? Women. Even the hackers are quick to say that ninety-five percent of the profiles belong to men, and the few profiles of women were almost certainly fake. At a time when more women are cheating than ever before, why aren’t they going on Ashley Madison? Is it something about the web site’s questionnaire – which focuses more on the type of sex the wannabe-adulterer wishes to engage in than the type of person he/she wishes to engage with – that turns off women? Or is it that women aren’t supposed to go out looking for extramarital sex? That women only cheat because they want love, not sex? If so, then what happens when a woman cheats like a man? That’s the subject author Stacy Robinson explores in her novel Surface.
Claire Montgomery’s life looks perfect from the outside. With her husband Michael, she’s half of a wealthy, powerful Denver couple. Their seventeen-year-old son Nick goes to Andover and is looking at Ivy League colleges. Her friends are the rich country-club set, and Claire spends her time organizing fundraisers around her passion for art. The only fly in the ointment is that Michael isn’t very attentive -- preoccupied with work, he’s dismissive of Claire’s art interests. When Claire impulsively joins Michael for dinner with his prospective business partner Andrew Bricker, she is immediately drawn to this younger man who shares her love for New York City and MOMA. When Michael goes out of town, Claire impulsively calls Andrew and invites him over. Andrew brings cocaine – enough for two – and while Claire is momentarily thrown at the offer (and turns it down) and at Andrew’s initial pass, it doesn’t stop her from having wild sex with him in the first floor guest room of her house. Even knowing that her son Nick, who already interrupted them talking in Michael’s office, is at a party nearby, doesn’t stop Claire. After Andrew leaves, Claire hops in the shower, then heads to the guest room to clean up the evidence. There, she finds Nick on the floor, convulsing and bleeding, having overdosed on Andrew’s cocaine.
(It doesn’t give away too much to reveal this, as these events all occur in the book’s first few chapters. But the summary on the back of the book is vague, using terms like “one impulsive indiscretion” and “recklessness” to backpedal from Claire’s behavior.)
After rushing Nick to the hospital, Claire calls Michael. As Nick fights for his life, Claire – to her credit – tells Michael the entire sordid story. Claire wants to put the entire episode behind them and unite in order to help Nick. Michael, however, can’t easily do that. As the focus turns from Nick’s survival to his long, hard road to recovery, Claire is bewildered why Michael can’t forgive her. Eventually she starts to wonder if her husband is keeping secrets of his own.
It is easy to root for a mother doing everything she can for her child, and the sections dealing with Nick’s brain injury and recovery are meticulously researched and compassionately detailed. At no point does Claire or Michael ever blame Nick for taking the cocaine, as if he were a three-year-old who couldn’t help putting strange objects in his mouth or up his nose. But Claire can’t understand why Michael just won’t forgive her. She fessed up. She feels awful about it. They need to present a united front for their son. So why can’t he just get over it?
Truthfully, I wouldn’t be able to get over it either, and I think most people would have a hard time forgiving as well. Claire’s lack of empathy for her spouse makes her a difficult character to fully care about. And yet, had Claire’s adultery been more traditionally female – a drawn-out attraction with a co-worker or old boyfriend – I might have been more on her side. Rather than realizing Michael (and many of their friends) have a right to be disgusted, Claire blames Michael’s lack of attention for her affair and Andrew for Nick’s overdose. Although Claire finds herself wondering if Michael has a girlfriend, she never asks herself how she’d feel about her husband if the situation were reversed.
And maybe she could have forgiven him. Maybe men, with their Ashley Madison accounts and their powerlessness over their all-consuming sex drives, are expected to be helpless to resist the attractive near-stranger offering wild passion. Women, however, should only cheat out of love, not horniness. Surface challenges this conventional wisdom, but most of the people in Claire’s life are not ready for it.
Surface is a very well-written book. Its portrayal of Nick’s brain injury is fascinating, and the domestic drama a customary plot for fans of women’s fiction. Still, Claire is an unusual heroine for the genre, which generally does not feature meaningless adultery from a woman’s point of view. My inability to get over Claire’s actions may say more about me than it does about her.
Thanks to BookSparks for the book in exchange for an honest review. This is part of their Summer Reading Challenge (#SRC2015).