Room for Love
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.”
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