It is difficult to make sex seem dreary, and yet that’s what Amy Grace Loyd does in “The Affairs of Others.” Which is a pity, because minus the joyless physical encounters that run throughout this debut novel, Loyd — a former fiction editor for Playboy magazine — has crafted a sensitive meditation on grief.
There is a reason for the depressing hookups, and it is connected intimately with Loyd’s larger themes of mourning and recovery. These are mainly played out in the stories of the two main characters, Celia and Hope. Celia, Loyd’s narrator, is a young widow. Since her husband’s death, she has bought a small Brooklyn apartment building, where she now lives on the ground floor, and where she cautiously welcomes Hope, who sublets the second-floor apartment from a longtime tenant. Hope is seeking refuge from a broken marriage, and Celia is wary of any disruption of her new routine. Change, however, has already come to Celia’s diminished world. Although the landlady does not initially know it, the marriage of the mismatched couple on the third floor is on the rocks, and the retired seaman on the top floor will soon disappear, his absence constituting the most mysterious part of the book.
What they all have in common is loss, though this is most obvious in the lives of Celia and Hope. Neither is coping well, and both experience stages of grief that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross never envisioned: the first being the urge to engage in wildly destructive sexual activity. In context, this almost makes sense. Hope’s husband has taken up with a younger woman, and Hope has retaliated with a former lover who still finds her desirable. Meanwhile, Celia talks about trying to lose herself, to forget her soul-deep sorrow, in physical sensation, specifically by submitting to anonymous sex. She recalls “the blessed strangeness of it . . . that this act was nothing I would mourn as I was mourning suddenly and would yet mourn. That was the point, that day and on others to come.” Although we are not party to Hope’s thoughts, it is clear she seeks the same oblivion.
In time, Celia also reveals an act of complicity in her husband’s death that goes a long way toward explaining her compulsion. But Celia’s motives do not account for Loyd’s own impulse to make every encounter quite brutal. Does the stranger who picks up Celia on the subway have to not only humiliate her, but also bash her head into a restroom mirror? Likewise, must Hope’s obsessive rebound affair result in her hospitalization? Loyd didn’t have to go to such lengths to make her point: women, perhaps all people, can use sex not only as a drug but as a way to punish themselves.
The symbolism throughout can seem heavy-handed. The book’s resolution might have been more of a surprise if, for example, the character who disrupts Celia’s ongoing mourning were not named Hope. And must the mysterious top-floor tenant, the one who seems closest to death, be not only a retired merchant marine but also a ferry captain? At least, his name is Coughlin and not Charon. Meanwhile, the unhappy third-floor wife is left to become a caricature. A do-gooder, she is on the brink of confiding in Celia about her failing marriage and instead ends up blaming her tears on “the polar bears. . . . They’re dying.” Her evasions are laughably inauthentic, implying that the only legitimate means of coping with a breakup is by masochistic coupling.
Where Loyd excels is in Celia’s internal monologues. Indulging in her memories, or trying to bury them in chores, she comes alive, and Loyd’s skill shines. If only she had trusted us to get her point without the overkill. Perhaps we’d have shared Celia’s and Hope’s passage from pain to acceptance, without so many regrets.Clea Simon is the author of 13 crime novels. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.