Usually, when we think of philanderers, we think of a handsome man concerned only with his own desires, leaving weeping women in his wake. But we know that passion and desire have an even hold on both the sexes. (We just have a different name for women who go for what they want, circumstances be damned.) So, to defy expectation, I’m starting with a woman, Ms. Sula Peace herself. Sula, the woman with the rose tattoo, is my absolute favorite faithless lover—the best ones do it in such a way that the faithful feel foolish and left out of the fun. When Sula adds to her list of conquests Jude, the husband of her best friend, Nel, she is confused by Nel’s response. Sula simply cannot imagine someone feeling so possessive of a man that she would deny her best friend a little romp. Once Sula is dead, Nel is crushed with sorrow, “All this time I thought I was missing Jude!” [ital and snark mine] You can almost hear Sula rolling her eyes from the grave.
If prostitution is the oldest profession, then philandering must be the oldest pastime. Much is made of the faithful Penelope weaving and unraveling her tapestry to keep her pesky suitors away. Her husband, Odysseus, however, could put any modern-day celebrity to shame. The man has a way with nymphs—from Calypso who kept him hostage (a likely story!) to Ino who gave him the magic veil. And then there was the thing with the witch-goddess Circe. Am I the only one who thought all that talk of foot-washing was just a euphemism? When I read this in high school, it was as secretly thrilling as the oblique sexual references on the B-side of a Prince record.
When I read this book for the first time, I had to make a little chart to keep up with who was having an affair with whom, and who all knew about it. This novel is a cross between something serious and enduring like Invisible Man and a Bravo reality show. Rufus, who is black, has a crazy, destructive affair with Leona, who is white. But before, that he was getting cozy with Eric, who was also seeing Yves, who was seeing Vivaldo, who was married to Cass, who had a fling with Rufus, whose sister was having a thing with Vivaldo. Baldwin manages to juggle all these naked negotiations while still laying down insightful observations about the intersection of race and sexuality that endure to this day.
Academic novels are great sources of cringe-worthy nerd-on-nerd love. Francine Prose takes the all too familiar—on the page and in life!—narrative of an older professor falling for a comely student. The Decemberist is Ted Swenson, a writer who used to be sort of kinda famous, and the May is Angela Argo, who is almost beautiful and almost brilliant, and enough of both to be a lot of sexy. At once heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny, as much a tale of love gone wrong as a hilarious send-up of MFA culture, which, for me holds a certain evil delight, this novel only gets eviler and more delightful when the player gets played.
A Spy in the House of Love
Sabina, the femme fatale adulteress extraordinaire seduces any man worth seducing. Although you’re not supposed to factor this in when reading a novel, it's extra thrilling to think that Sabina may be the author’s alter ego. My favorite character is the “lie detector”—the person she dials up at random and tells her deliciously reckless tales involving other people’s husbands, elaborate make-up, and assumed identities. Yes, there are consequences to her behavior—no one can ever accuse Anaïs Nin of taking the easy way out. Still, Sabina she looks fabulous and doesn’t get chucked under a train, drown herself in the Gulf of Mexico, or die in childbirth. Score.
James Witherspoon has two wives, two daughters and one big secret. My novel Silver Sparrow is told through the point of view of his daughters, who are caught in the middle. When writing about bigamy, I was open to the possibility that a person gets into a second (concurrent!) marriage the same way he gets into the first. That is, one thing leads to another. At first it’s just coffee, next thing he knows, he’s tipping across state lines to commit a Class C felony. It’s what happens when you try to please everyone. Still it goes without saying that having two wives is different than having a wife and a girlfriend, or even two girlfriends. Not only is it not as much fun, but stakes are higher and at the end of the day everyone has to make hard choices and the consequences are real.
Read next: Wedding Day by Robley Wilson