Serial Monogamy by Kate Taylor
Reviewed by Megan O’Connor (and Lyra)
Nelly Ternan fascinates me – an emotion that is fed by her lack of voice. She does not tell us why she (at age 18) risked so much for a shadow life with Charles Dickens (age 45). Instead, other writers (notably, Claire Tomalin) sketch in the details of her story – which interweaves with a modern tale in this novel, whose narrator finds out, first, that her older husband is having an affair with his research student, and, second, that she has breast cancer and is unlikely to see her own girls grow into womanhood.
I was predisposed to enjoy Serial Monogamy. It adds more lines to Ternan (closely following Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman) while exploring still-relevant questions: Can we ever own another person, or child, or even our own bodies? If not, what does marriage mean? The word “serial” is well chosen – referring to Dickens’s own genre of storytelling and (for me, at least) prodding the word “monogamy” to see if it still breathes. I enjoyed the layering of stories (so much for serial telling) and the insistent relevance of each layer. In the end, though, I was unpersuaded by the narrator’s tone. It was too neatly reconciled to loss (or perhaps I’m too messy to believe it). And the big revelation — which ties a neat theme bow — makes her earlier rage seem puzzling.
The book was also too short. I wanted to know (nitty gritty) how people cheat, and how the other spouse survives the shock (or doesn’t). I mean, if Dickens can spend pages describing London fog, couldn’t Taylor’s narrator offer more of the stuff of marriage? The stuff that still gets in our lungs? Until death us do part. With my body …. Marriage is strange. The novel gives us two married scholars – both schooled in taking apart structures line by line. Each could have given us more insight into the mind (and mine) of desire and the institution – already thrown askew by Dickens – of marriage.
Yet I enjoyed Serial Monogamy – very much. I also liked the sub-plot of newspaper economics. The main character, Sharon, is asked to write a serial that will appear only in print. The goal is to make readers so keen to follow her story that they will buy the paper – the physical object – rather than stay online; to keep the paper “alive” by sheer curiosity. Scheherazade — whose name is not unlike the narrator’s – keeps herself alive by telling stories; and the novel makes good use of One Thousand and One Nights to ask the bigger question: Is any body essential to the story? (What do we value most: the story or the teller?)
Ternan’s emotional life is mostly “lost” to us because letters pertinent to her affair with Dickens were physically destroyed. She is here recreated – in a novel about loss, and whose structure depends on the survival of a letter. Serial Monogamy strains a little under the weight of these ideas – yet it’s a clever, enjoyable, and sad story. Lyra gives it two paws.
“Ahem,” says Lyra, “And the dogs?”
“Fine, then. See below.”
Lyra’s take: Man gets tired of one reward, seeks another. Rewards change in value over time; while our need for reward does not. Fidelity – to the bringer of rewards – is important, but it’s not life or death. Only life is life or death.