Nathan’s new novel, Infidelity, is about to be published and the advance buzz about the book is very positive. As his wife, Sarah, helps him find his shoes so that they can finish dressing for the wedding of their best friends, Alex and Adam, Nathan informs Sarah that he has been unfaithful to her. It happened when he attended a writer’s conference the previous year while Sarah remained at home with Mattie, their now three-year-old daughter, and pregnant with baby Binx. Nathan claims it was a one-time dalliance for which he is extremely contrite and remorseful, telling Sarah that he will do whatever she wants, accept any decision she makes about their future.
One’s entire life can change in an instant with the revelation of one seemingly simple fact. Everything one believed up to that point can come into question, the very foundations upon which you have built your life now wobbly and unsteady.
As Sarah comes to that realization, she first tries to hold onto her marriage and its day-to-day normalcy. But her anger is too great, her emotional state too volatile. So she asks Nathan to leave, completely forgetting that she has to go to work and he normally provides child care. When he fails to answer his cell phone for a couple of days, she turns to his best friend, Smith, for comfort. Smith volunteers to babysit. He even prepares dinner and stops by with groceries, but Sarah cannot bring herself to go to work.
Nathan returns and suggests that Sarah go away for the weekend with the children. She starts driving and ends up back in Austen, Texas, where they attended college, visiting her best friend, Helen. Like Sarah, Helen is married and has two young children. Unlike Sarah, Helen has managed to continue writing poetry, enlisting a babysitter three mornings each week so that she can go to a coffee house and focus on her work. Sarah, in contrast, realizes that she not written a poem in two years. She took an administrative position at the local college in order to provide her family with necessities such as health insurance, enabling Nathan to concentrate on being a full-time novelist.
In Austen, Sarah is also reunited with old friend Rajiv, who once kissed Sarah, while declaring that he was a little bit in love with her. Rajiv is still single and still attracted to Sarah.
Between the demands of her job and her two young children, Sarah has ceased to be a poet, an artist. Instead, she has been mired in the day-to-day realities of meeting her children’s needs, paying the bills, and maintaining the family that she and Nathan have created. Now all of that is in jeopardy as Sarah contemplates the impact that Nathan’s betrayal will have, in the long run, on all of their lives.
Author Leah Stewart says that Husband and Wife is a book about “familial love, which is in so many ways more complicated than the purely romantic kind.” And that is an apt description of the conundrum in which Nathan and Sarah find themselves. Sarah suddenly and without warning learns that her husband is capable of the worst kind of duplicity, and that revelation literally calls into question everything she has believed about her marriage and the life she and Nathan have constructed. It leaves her adrift, alone, and confused, wondering what she should do next as she contemplates what she is capable of doing.
Husband and Wife is a quintessential examination of two lives in transition from the wild, carefree, dream-filled days when Sarah and Nathan were twenty-something graduate students living together to the responsibilities and commitments they have made and must now live up to in their thirties. Sarah bemoans the changes wrought upon her body after carrying and nursing two children. Nathan believes that Sarah actually enjoys her job, but wonders what happened to the idealistic, creative poet with whom he fell in love. Nathan is a hands-on father who cares for the baby while Sarah is at work, cooks dinner each night, does the dishes, helps bathe the children, and reads them bedtime stories. Still, he fails to appreciate that Sarah has found mothering a toddler and an infant, whom she is still nursing, in combination with holding down a demanding full-time job, all-consuming. Nathan gave in to the temptation of a sexual encounter with a women who reminded him of a younger, unburdened, and artistic version of his wife. Sarah resents Nathan for risking everything because he apparently did not realize that she is the same woman he fell in love with ten years ago, even though her priorities have, of necessity, shifted.
What was on my mind was motherhood, and how it affects your self, your marriage, and your work. . . . [H]ow to make the subject interesting? I needed a crisis in my characters’ lives to throw the way they lived into sharp relief, and the crisis I chose was infidelity. Nothing causes you to examine a bond like a betrayal of it. I was interested, too, in how a contemporary woman with a career — a woman who was not raised to believe in the preservation of the marriage above all — would struggle with the conflicting impulses to stay or go, and with the ways she imagines either choice will be perceived.~ Author Leah Stewart
The story is recounted through Sarah’s eyes. Any woman who has given birth to and raised children will empathize with Sarah’s need to see herself as more than a mother, especially in the eyes of her children’s father, as well as appreciate the myriad demands upon Sarah’s time and attention. Her devastation at learning of Nathan’s unfaithfulness and initial attempt to just power through her hurt and confusion for the sake of their family rings brilliantly and heartbreakingly true, as does the sudden breakthrough of her anger, and deep-seated sense that they have lost something precious that they will never be able to reclaim.
Likewise, Nathan’s disillusionment is palpable and genuine. In one of the book’s pivotal moments, it becomes clear that his encounter with author Kate Ryan was really a misguided attempt to recapture aspects of his relationship with Sarah that he has come to miss in the years since they married and became parents. It is a common experience for couples in their child-rearing years. There comes a defining moment when, as a couple, you realize that nursing nightgowns have replaced silky lingerie, you can’t remember the last time you had a conversation that didn’t focus on the children’s needs or schedule, neither one of you has had a night out with your friends in longer than you can remember, every CD player you own now holds children’s recordings rather than your favorite albums, and although the idea of sex is appealing, the reality is that you both would just rather get some sleep. Many couples acknowledge that their relationship has changed, but hang on for the day when the children sleep in their own rooms and, eventually, even get driver’s licenses that allow the parents to have quiet nights at home together. Other couples have a more difficult time recognizing the transient nature of marriage and parenthood, and act out in ways similar to Nathan. Sarah ponders why Nathan turned to another woman:
He was just as guilty of letting life become ordinary — conventional — as I was, no matter what he’d claimed. If he wanted to recapture the life we lived in grad school and for several years after, why didn’t he try to recapture it with me? Maybe we each needed someone who was still living that life, someone to take us by the hand and offer to be our guide to willful ignorance of reality. We couldn’t ignore reality with each other. We were each other’s reality, each other’s history, each other’s daily bread. We were each other’s most important, most necessary person, the one you lean on when life gives you trouble, the one you take the trouble out on, the one person who can help you through it, the person you sometimes hate, partly because you need them so much and they can’t always — who could? — live up to that need.
At the outset, as noted above, Nathan makes it clear that he does not want his mistake to derail their marriage, so the reader is left wondering why he found it necessary to unburden himself a year later. That question is never answered, because the story is told through Sarah’s voice. Nathan also places complete responsibility for what will happen to them in the aftermath upon Sarah, a decidedly unfair abdication of responsibility and accountability that, not surprisingly, sends Sarah into an emotional tailspin. In that state, Stewart allows her protagonist to make choices that demean her and will anger some readers, largely because, by that point, readers have made an emotional connection with and investment in the character of Sarah. And Sarah is, as has been amply demonstrated by that point, an earnest, well-meaning person, a highly educated and intelligent woman who wants to do what is right for all concerned, especially her children. In Stewart’s defense, Sarah is deeply conflicted because everything she holds dear has been brought into question and opened up to scrutiny, and by that point in the story, Sarah is convinced that she cannot face the future until she finds peace and closure with her past. Her lingering questions on that score are answered by the time the story concludes.
The story drags in places, especially when Sarah lapses into lengthy, nostalgic memories of her life as a bohemian graduate student. But Stewart is forgiven those indulgences because it is obvious that Stewart intimately understands her subject matter. Herself the mother of two children, Stewart sends Sarah on a harrowing trip to McDonald’s with her two young children that will have seasoned parents empathetically laughing and crying — because we’ve all had at least one similar experience — and will serve as effective birth control for any reader who is the slightest bit squeamish about discussing . . . well, let’s just call them normal bodily functions.
Overall, Husband and Wife is a poignant and engrossing story about the challenges of juggling familial priorities. It is also about the need to adapt to the various demands that are placed upon spouses when they opt to become parents. In that sense, it is a cautionary drama about the need to remember who you were before you became a parent and maintain balance in your life so that your spouse will also still recognize you. Even more importantly, it is a story about how not to give yourself over so completely to the needs of your children that you cease to recognize yourself as you transition with your partner from being the parents of very young children into the next phase of your life.