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An Empty Room by Talitha Stevenson
Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004
(224 pages; $12.00, paperback)
reviewed by Heather Ferngren Morton
Novelist Jessamyn West wrote, “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.” But in a culture that renders sex casual, marital commitment negotiable, and personal fulfillment the highest moral principle, fiction that reveals the destruction wrought by these values is hard to come by.
Perhaps this very lack is one reason why An Empty Room, the debut novel of British writer Talitha Stevenson, is so striking. A coming-of-age story about a young woman brought up in a culture of divorce and promiscuity, it questions the assumption that sex is merely physical and exposes the careless self-indulgence that so often masquerades as love.
The Inside Life
At nineteen, Emily is haunted by childhood memories of her father’s infidelity and troubled by her parents’ still-tenuous marriage. Her boyfriend Tom—rich, glamorous, and scarred by his own broken family—takes her to chic clubs where they do cocaine in the bathroom. Emily doesn’t love Tom, but as the novel opens, she seems unable to imagine an alternative to the kind of feckless life they lead together.
Then she meets Simon, Tom’s older, married cousin. Simon is sincere, sanguine, and utterly unlike the other characters in her world. The first time they meet, at a dinner party, he expresses the conviction that marriage doesn’t have to end in divorce. “You just have to put the other person before yourself, don’t you?” he asks, and Emily finds herself agreeing. They are the only two in the room who dare to hope that marriages can last.
It is ironic, then (or perhaps, in the moral universe of the novel, inevitable), that Emily and Simon should have an affair. Their love seems self-justifying by its very nature: In this world of betrayal and disillusionment, only these two know real, transformative love. “I loved someone and he loved me and what was the matter with the outside of it being secret and wrong? The inside was more than I had ever had.” Even I, the Christian reader, must acknowledge that Emily’s moral choices—her old life of meaningless sex on the one hand, and her new life of genuine, though forbidden, love on the other—seem profoundly constrained.
The heart of the novel is Emily’s journey to understanding right from wrong, real love from its various imposters all around her. Raised Catholic, Emily regards her mother’s devotion as merely a crutch that helps her cope with realities like her husband’s affair, or the fact that he’s starting on his second bottle of wine.
But though her mother appears weak, she may emerge as the novel’s single moral force. In one scene, we find that her marriage, which has always seemed on the verge of collapse, is actually rooted in something far more substantial than the romance Emily equates with love. Her mother’s rebuke to Emily, in the book’s final pages, is striking: “What you’re talking about—lust, insecurity—it passes . . . . Doesn’t it always come with pain—end in disappointment? The more I’ve lived, the simpler everything’s seemed. If I had to define it, I’d say love is trying never to cause people pain.”
With Simon, Emily thinks she is finally experiencing love. Yet when Tom discovers their affair, and uses her 14-year-old sister as a vehicle of revenge, Emily is forced to confront her own moral responsibility. Ultimately, she realizes that her conception of love has been relentlessly solipsistic: In the process of running hard after her own happiness, she has inflicted irrevocable damage on those around her.
Stevenson, who has suggested the novel was inspired by her own experiences growing up in a culture of divorce, doesn’t offer anything approaching a fairy-tale ending. The book’s conclusion, though jolting, is nonetheless satisfying: Emily awakens to evil (even the evil that feels redemptive), repudiates the hatred that has become the stock in trade of those around her, and moves towards genuine, self-sacrificing love.
An Empty Room is full of lush images, poignant reflections, and striking symbols. But Emily’s narrative voice may be the novel’s greatest triumph. She sees things that others don’t see, or don’t want to see: the “sad private joke” that is the parody of intimacy she and her friends enact, her own capacity for denial. She helps me understand my friends from broken homes. And she helps me understand myself.
Our culture regards love’s goal as self-fulfillment; the Bible suggests it is self-sacrifice. An Empty Room portrays the struggle between these competing values as, by turns, complex and starkly clear. It reveals the devastating consequences of human selfishness, and it offers some hope—a glimmer of it, at least—that we can overcome the sins sown by our parents.
Heather Ferngren Morton works as an editor for a public policy research organization in Washington, D.C. She and her husband are members of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.