BOOK REVIEW: In this deeply introspective yet somewhat uneven debut novel, a young widowed landlord’s cloistered existence is thrown for a loop by the arrival of a charismatic tenant.
Amy Grace Loyd’s debut novel, “The Affairs of Others” (Picador, 291 pages, $24), traces several months in the life of thirty-something Celia Cassill, who has lost her financier husband to an ugly, protracted illness. With the money she received after his death, Celia decided to purchase a building in Brooklyn and rent out rooms. Her intention was to create a new, safe, orderly space for herself, where privacy was paramount — both a haven within the city and, more important, an emotional refuge, separating herself from where she had lived with her husband. Her master plan, as we find out, meets with mixed success.
Things move along fairly smoothly until one of her four tenants decides he needs to travel for a few months and wants to sublet his apartment. His friend Hope was separating from her husband, so he presents her to Celia as a potential subletter. Though initially resistant, Celia gives in to the idea — and, at the same time, to Hope’s enigmatic (and eventually erotic) charms, despite the resulting disruptions in Celia’s controlled life.
Loyd is acute and unsparing in her portrayal of Celia’s grief over the loss of her husband. Though the chapters are short and the radius of action is small, “Affairs” still feels substantial. Celia moves almost ghostlike through her own apartment, her building, the streets of Brooklyn and the reaches of her mind, with the reader being just as absorbed in her thoughts as she is.
Given this frequent beauty of “Affairs,” it’s unfortunate when Loyd hits notes that don’t ring as true. Aside from the lack of subtlety of a name like “Hope” (Celia does acknowledge the silliness of it a couple of times, but the fact remains that Loyd chose it), stiltedness in general is a recurring issue. Celia’s diction sometimes doesn’t even seem of the 21st century, as when she utters such lines as “I’m not here to surveil your father” or, on the subject of tenant selection, “You both know I look to maintain a consonance of characters”; or when she reflects that a particular environment made her “quick to emotion.” Additionally, while Celia’s vivid carnal memories of her husband feel natural, there are aspects of her other three sexual liaisons in “Affairs” (one of which is recounted in particular detail) that feel more affected or formulaic. Her widow’s grief notwithstanding, it’s difficult to really believe Celia’s attempt to seduce a man whom just a week or two previous she had tried to murder with a golf club.
Underneath these narrative waverings, however, there is always the starkly, unusually honest core story: that of a woman figuring out how to continue on, however haltingly or sinuously, after seemingly unbearable loss.
Kim Hedges is an editor and book reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area.