Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel, follows Ester Nillson, a writer and poet, who gets involved in an affair with a married actor, Olof Sten, in the hopes that he will get divorced, and their affair will eventually turn into a long-term relationship, even though, right from the start, Olof admits to Ester that he’s not planning on ever leaving his wife. At the same time, he does not object to Ester’s advances. The novel unfolds as a detailed account of the relationship dynamic between these two delusional people that continues on for several years.
Both main characters come off as incredibly selfish and callous people, and it’s hard to sympathize with either of them. At first glance, it’s easy to label Ester as the villain of the story. You, as the reader, may initially catch yourself starting to blame Ester for the affair and wanting to shake some sense into her. Although she knows from the start that Olof is married, Ester is quite aggressive in pursuing a relationship with him anyway, and even tells him, very early on, that she wants to spend the rest of her life with him, not caring about the consequences. She seems very naive for her age and wears her heart on her sleeve, believing in true love that will eventually overcome any obstacle. It’s very frustrating to be constantly subjected to her thought processes and to read about a person, who so stubbornly doesn’t want to acknowledge the reality of the situation until you become aware of how cleverly the author has just played you. As I read on, I realized that the author intended to illustrate how we are conditioned to almost automatically assign blame to the woman in these situations, even though Ester, despite her obvious character flaws, isn’t the one who is lying and betraying her spouse. We see how the cheating husband, at the same time, tries to shrug off any responsibility for the affair, even going as far as constantly repeating that he and Ester are not in any kind of relationship, which is just plainly absurd.
Eventually, Ester is forced to realize that she has been relegated to the role of the mistress and the book examines the dichotomy between the categories of Wife – Mistress, that is often applied to women. It points out the double standard that exists here, where women often get defined and redefined in terms of these categories, while there are no such equivalent categories for men.
The mistress as an idea constitutes a third counterpoint between the complimentary woman/man. Her anatomy is woman’s but her autonomy is man’s. She is a third, the most frightening and most alluring, that which in the end must be pushed out of life’s bid for dualistic order.
I couldn’t help thinking that, if their roles were reversed, this situation would probably be portrayed as romantic – the passionate hero, who believes in true love, stubbornly trying to win over a married woman. Ultimately, this is a smart, darkly comic and feminist look at cheating, and this whole saga between Ester and Olof concludes with a very satisfying ending.
Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.