The Affairs of Others

  • Amy Grace Loyd
  • Picador
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by: K.H. Macomber
  • October 2, 2013

A young widow's set boundaries and isolation begin to dissolve when a new tenant in her apartment building brings chaos and unpredictability.

It would be all too easy to make blithe presumptions about Amy Grace Loyd’s debut novel, The Affairs of Others, based on her resume. Starting with the author’s recent experience as Playboy’s fiction editor, a reader’s mind can barely help wandering to shades of gray, like it or not. Or towards Lolita, if we’re looking for a higher brow example of what one might imagine the Playboy fiction ilk to be. It was Loyd, after all, who provided her Playboy readers with Nobokov’s long-lost novella, “The Original of Laura,” in November 2009.

As a long-standing literary editor, Loyd was blessed to line-read and rub shoulders with the greats — Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Smiley and Margaret Atwood among them. And after her stint at providing great writing to a somewhat unlikely audience, it follows that Loyd’s experience gave her the impetus to not just tell her story, but also to give it depth and soul. Wanting her story to stretch beyond the bounds that are so inevitably drawn — a tale of a woman of a certain age, learning to let go of her rules of engagement — was surely in Loyd’s mindset.

If this was her objective, Amy Grace Loyd has succeeded, and marvelously. The Affairs of Others is a novel that delves deep and sends ripples wide. Loyd mines the narrative gems within our lives, the intimacies we allow or don’t, the versions of our personal truths we put out for public consumption and the worlds that exist only in our heads, where our deepest secrets dwell. She has invented a wonderfully sticky web of a world into which any reader might be delighted to find himself caught, written in such beautiful language it seems to seep up from some dark well, unbidden and insistent. The visuals jump to life. The aromas are intoxicating and excruciating, by turn. If the choppy opening ode to the landscape of female aging doesn’t entice, don’t despair. You’ll be on our heroine’s rollercoaster ride before you know it.

Celia is a woman not old and yet no longer young, a widow too soon. Her life is beyond bare. She lives alone amongst her tenants, just blocks from the house where her husband died after a long and tortured illness. She has no one to turn to — no beloved family members, no close friends, no workmates or confidantes. She’s invested in living her protracted life, and keeping the flame of her husband’s love alive in her heart. She’s also invested in maintaining walls, literal and figurative, between herself and her tenants. Meanwhile, in private, she hoards the treasures of her married life — books that still smell of the soup they ate while she read them aloud to her ailing husband, the DVDs of movies they adored — keeping them close by but under lock and key, the better not to be dimmed by everyday life.

All is going according to plan, if by plan Celia intends to live a diminished life, to purposefully give up on the nurturing of anything and to occasionally submit her body to anonymous sex in scary places. It’s as if only the self-inflicted punishment of allowing herself to be sexually violated can feel more painful than her grief. Why does she feel such a visceral need to bury her grief this way? As her story unfolds, we learn. And in the learning, Celia comes to life, one unexpected turn after another.

Once we’ve settled into the story of Celia’s life as a performance piece to maintain boundaries and control, along comes disruption. It arrives in the person of Hope, whose name is no accident. Celia lets Hope in as a new member of her building’s tribe, subletting for a tenant. Hope offers to pay the rent and water the plants and be on her best behavior. Chaos, inevitably and predictably, ensues. Hope is the burr that catches loose threads, sending everything and everyone in Celia’s life askew.

As the individual vignettes of each character unfold, each additional shift further unravels Celia’s sense of control. But amidst the plot twists and characters’ new interactions, what takes us by surprise is less the arcs of the story lines, and more the artistry with which Loyd develops perfect emotional scenes, showing again and again what real intimacy looks like, feels like, smells like. These beautifully rendered moments — the glances, the brushes of skin against skin, the gentle words, the merest of touches — are thick with human connection. The gift of tenderness, the sense of being cherished, the sort of love that makes life worth living — these are the most profound moments in each character’s evolution, and each moment exposes real intimacy and humanity, ringing clear and true.

What doesn’t ring as true are some plot twists. Would Celia open that door? Would she offer that drink, return that blow for blow? Celia is not always the most upright of characters, and not always above breaking her own rules. In this she perhaps becomes most human, and most realistically truthful. Just when we think we know her, it turns out we don’t. That’s probably how both Celia and Loyd would want it to be. At arm’s length and separate.

Having set the opening of her novel in a bleak world of sensory deprivation, Loyd closes The Affairs of Others in a world of revelry and journeys, and of travelers and commuters, touched by human attachments “that sustain us without apology … before saying goodbye to us, goodbye for now.” We can’t help but wonder how these characters might live out their lives, beyond the pages of this novel.

In the words of Samuel Johnson, a book should either allow the reader to escape existence or teach him how to endure it. In The Affairs of Others, Amy Grace Loyd allows us both. Let go, she suggests to Celia, to us all, and see what happens. You might be amazed.

K.H. Macomber lives in Cambridge Mass.

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