What was the connection? Did Sam’s father have a similar nose? Hein doesn‘t say. What she does say, triumphantly, is that “the nose [soon] lay by the wayside,” because “the more he talked about how bad he felt about himself, the better he felt about his wife’s nose.”
On the surface, Hein‘s argument looks sweeter than Miller’s. Indeed, the maternal Hein, whose publicity blurb emphasizes her adoration for humanity (even her acquaintance with French and Spanish is hailed as “a result of her love for people”), wants to console a betrayed spouse by reminding, “An affair has nothing to do with love . . . it is not even about someone else.” But her argument turns upon itself. If an affair is not, at least in part, about someone else, why is a marriage? If all we ever do is grapple with our past in the guise of another person, then isn‘t the person we meet and marry as accidental as anyone else? What motive is there for loyalty in so arbitrary a universe, so solitary a game? If the person “in our arms” doesn’t matter, who the hell does? Hein defuses affairs by devaluing love.
The fact is, there are as many kinds of adulterous relationships as there are relationships. Some are shallow; some are deep. Some are overdue excuses for people to get out of unsatisfactory or abusive marriages (statistics show most people lack the courage to leave marriages unless an affair plays a role); some are frivolous and destructive distractions. All are terribly human.
Sexual Detours has the virtue of any cabinet of cliches: It contains a few trusty old trinkets, one or two well-worn truths -- and a lot of stuff that needs to be retired, because we‘ve seen too much of it and it was never useful to begin with. One of these is Hein’s notion of the Third Party in an Affair -- often the “Second Woman.” To Hein, as to other writers, she is a nonentity, a disposable Kleenex, a bad habit to kick -- with all the ruthlessness that that implies. An “affair must be treated as a drug,” she declares -- and given up with as glad a conscience and as hard a gesture. “Nothing easier than firing the poor girl when it comes to it,” says a tiring philanderer in British novelist Tim Park‘s recent collection Adultery and Other Diversions. Was this Leon’s thought before he “fired” Madame Bovary once upon a time and she took that rat poison? A Second Woman has no fewer feelings than a First Woman; to treat her as a “drug” is to add inhumanity to infidelity.
The Mating Mind is without question the more serious, scholarly and original of the two books. Both Miller‘s and Hein’s arguments, however, seem oddly antiquated. Whatever the prehistoric evidence for male fertilization mania, in our day at least as much “art” is poured into contraception as reproduction. People don‘t commit adultery to pass on their genes. Books on adultery don’t sell because everybody‘s trying to process childhood traumas. They sell because we dream of risk, adventure, passion, courtship and the possibility of reinventing ourselves. A timely book about adultery would tell us not how to avoid it but how to tap its potent attractions for our marriages.