The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The only reason I picked this up was because it was narrated by Colin Firth, one of my favorite actors. I figured, even if I hated it, I'd get to listen to Mr. Firth for a few hours. And I was prepared to hate it; it had many of the trappings I tend to avoid.
I didn't hate it, and not just because of the narrator. I found it a surprisingly tender and touching story, one that managed to resonate with me.
Maurice Bendrix is a writer, and he's had a touch of writer's block since the married woman he was having an affair with cut things off without explanation, following a bomb falling very near his flat. (The story takes place during and immediately following WWII.) He bumps into her husband by pure chance some time later, who confesses he believes Sarah is cheating on him. Bendrix feels jealous all over again, and hires a private investigator to follow her. All evidence supports her taking up with an atheist evangelist named Smythe, until he reads her diary.
The book gets into a lot of philosophical questions about religion, love, and writing. Bendrix bemoans the difficulty of writing while depressed, and, though I have little sympathy for a guy who doesn't need a day job and can write full-time, I knew what he meant. Sarah, meanwhile, feels a pull toward the Catholic faith, and ascribes many events to godly intervention. And in the middle of all this is Bendrix's jealousy, contrasted with Sarah's faith.
It would've been easy to write this book to turn Sarah into a villain. She's a married woman having an affair, and refuses to leave her husband. As the story goes on, though, she becomes increasingly sympathetic. Neither is the husband the bad guy; he's merely clueless and a bit self-absorbed. If there's any antagonist in this book, it's the god the atheist Bendrix winds up railing against. Either that, or Bendrix himself. His jealousy certainly works against his self-interest, and he projects his beliefs and values onto Sarah, as if he can shape her in his image by thinking it hard enough. She remains staunchly independent, though, and chooses the exact opposite of what he wants at every turn.
Sometimes, what we need is the last thing we want.
I suspect a lot of modern literary fiction is trying to tap into this book's qualities when they reuse the cheating plot. Apparently, to find a version I liked, I had to go back to the source.
The narration was rather enjoyable, and I only wish Colin Firth did this for more books. I imagine it's a large time commitment, though, with little payoff. I don't know if I would've had as favorable an opinion of this book if I hadn't listened to this version. I'll never know, and I'm fine with that.
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