Many books focus on romantic affairs, but it takes something special to shed new light on this common subject. Two of my all-time favourite novels that explore the dynamics of an affair are Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” and Anne Enright’s “The Forgotten Waltz” which both feel so searingly honest in portraying the complicated emotions of all three of the people involved. Jamie Quatro’s “Fire Sermon” adds an entirely new dynamic charting the trajectory of an affair over her protagonist Maggie’s lifetime. Shifting back and forth through time, the story recounts the beginning of her marriage to Thomas, the intense moment when she and poet James decide to go to a hotel together and the complicated aftermath. In a series of letters (sent and unsent), conversations with a therapist and recollections of moments from Maggie’s life she searches for meaning and an understanding of her choices. Since she was raised religiously and continues to study religious texts, her reasoning is inflected with a complicated spiritual dynamic. The novel builds to a powerfully heartfelt and intense communion with the self.
Part of what drew me to reading this novel was Garth Greenwell’s enthusiastic endorsement of it. His novel “What Belongs to You” is one of the most striking and intensely-felt meditations on desire I’ve ever read. Although the relationship dynamic Quatro portrays in her novel is entirely different from Greenwell’s story, these novels equally capture the complicated emotions we’re subject to when we find our desires pulling us towards actions and decisions we can’t understand. After giving birth to two children Maggie finds she doesn’t sexually desire her husband anymore, but often submits to sex with him because she feels “Her body isn’t hers anyhow, a toddler and an infant attached like appendages.” The tragedy of this feeling is compounded by her husband Thomas’ ardent desire to find some way to sexually reconnect with his wife which wavers between sympathetic suggestions to brutality. However, when Maggie meets James the passion is urgently felt.
It feels significant that the intense desire Maggie feels for James occurs before they even meet. After reading some of his poems she writes to him, they strike up a communication and eventually plan to meet. In their written dialogue she observes how “in these talks, I feel I’m discovering, or recovering, a deeper self, something at the core of my being.” Maggie connects with a part of herself that feels like its been lost from years of domestic routine culminating in children, a companionable marriage and stable home. James’ life exactly mirrors Maggie’s in many ways. So their connection isn’t entirely about an intellectual or sexual desire for each other but a wish to reclaim a unified sense of self that isn’t fragmented by the attachments which make up their daily lives. This draw towards an internal unity is reflected in the way she remarks how “The fact of their bodies – her own, James’s – had seemed beside the point. As if mouths and tongues and limbs were only in the way, something they had to get through in order to get to something else.”
Of course, sex is not just about the act itself. One of the most striking scenes is when Maggie and James undress to really see each other and observe how their bodies are aging. Part of their connection is based on reconciling with the fact their bodies are naturally transforming. It’s striking how Quatro captures the way coming to terms with one’s own desirability is a large part of our sexual connections. It’s as if only honestly seeing ourselves reflected in another’s eyes and still feeling wanted can induce peace of mind about our aging flesh. There are many other factors which also contribute to her desire for an affair with James, but many of them are to do with developing a deeper connection to and understanding of herself. So it seems natural that Maggie contemplates the meaning of meditation frequently and how this practice of speaking with oneself is realised in different religions which alternately seek to extinguish the self (as in Buddhism) or a unification with God (as in Christianity). What’s consistent in Maggie’s search throughout her life is a desire to communicate whether that be with her husband, James, God or herself. “Fire Sermon” beautifully charts this ongoing dialogue she maintains as a method of parsing the unruly desires which tug at her existence.