Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy
Other Press, February 2016
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
I’m kind of in love with the narrator of Therese Bohman’s novel The Other Woman. First off, she’s a reader, and her favorite book is Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. (Next comes Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain.) Stuck in the post-industrial Swedish port city of Norrköping, working in a hospital cafeteria, she really wants to be a writer. Not a woman writer, but “a woman who writes like a man”—she wants “to live the myth of the male artist: sitting in cafes and bars, smoking and drinking and discussing, traveling the world, reading all the books, seeing all the works of art, listening to all the music, feeling at home with a sense of not feeling at home.” She’s never had a plan for her life, and she alternates between despising and envying those who have, “the people who have simply chosen a route and followed it through, who make a choice and stick to it.” Writing is a compulsion for her, and so she’s always believed that writing is what she’s meant to do. Not much meets with her approval, particularly people. When she goes out, she feels she’d rather have stayed home, but if she stays home, she feels she’s boring. She likes nice things and well-designed atmospheres of the upper-middle class, but they make her feel cheap and inferior and even vulgar. She’s intellectual, but she feels she’s a failure as a feminist, because she has trouble empathizing with women, and she doesn’t like theories and structures and constructs; she likes art and literature only because of beauty and truth. She’s usually lonely, and she warns us, “If you are looking for honesty, then you had better be prepared to be alone.”
She pretty much seems like my dream woman. But then again, she is the other woman. That is, she purposely pursues and sleeps with a married man, a doctor nearly twice her age. She starts an affair, and she feels great about it. She thinks that he is like her. She thinks that he is good, that he’s “a genuinely good man.” That there’s “something honest about his whole being.” But how can he be good and honest if he’s consistently cheating on his wife? How can she love truth and beauty and goodness if she hates her lover’s wife and wishes her ill when she doesn’t even know the woman? She knows what she’s doing is wrong, and so she rationalizes her actions. She tells herself that he isn’t appreciated and that his wife deserves to be betrayed. She tells herself that she’s doing it to have something to write about. She knows it can only end badly, but she believes he’ll leave his wife to be with her. That is, she lies to herself. And yet she says, “Good writers are good because they don’t lie, not to themselves or to anyone else. The same thing applies to good people.”
So I wonder how I could be so attracted to this not-good person. But then I think about dating these days, and how we chose our partners—how we present ourselves on dating apps, and judge others by how they present themselves, not necessarily how they look but what they’re into. And we usually choose people who like what we like. You’re a vegetarian? Me too! You like jazz records, and books, and walking in the rain? Me too! We choose to be around people who think like we do, who dress like we dress, who value what we value. We basically choose a partner who most closely resembles our self. An opposite sex version of our self. (Or for some, a same sex version of our self.) And so this is kind of disturbing. Because I must see myself in the narrator of Therese Bohman’s The Other Woman. She’s a lonely, ambitious, insecure, unscrupulous, difficult, selfish, and naïve person. But she’s also someone who has “been striving upward, like a flower growing toward the light, toward what is true, what is good, what is beautiful.”
And because Bohman captures the ambiguous complexity of human emotion, The Other Woman is a novel that is true, good, and beautiful.