Every once in a while, I come across a novel that stays with me long after I finish reading it, one that I makes me wonder how the main character’s life will play out after the initial story reaches its denouement. The Other Woman by Swedish writer Therese Bohman (translated by Marlaine Delargy) is such a book, and possibly one of the best books I have read even though 2016 is only half over.
The protagonist of The Other Woman is nameless and faceless. She is fairly young, has some college education, and desires to be a writer. However, she works at a hospital cafeteria and her so-called writing seems to be limited to thinking about it, not exactly doing it.
Feeling at loose ends, and desiring some excitement in her predictable life, our protagonist develops a crush on a much older, successful doctor named Carl Malmberg. Dr. Malmberg is on his second marriage and has children with both is first and second wife. It isn’t long before our protagonist starts an affair with the doctor. She is attracted to his success and maturity and he is attracted to her youth and how she seems to put him on pedestal, obeying his every lead.
It is there I should have closed the book in disgust. I’ve been cheated on and it isn’t a picnic. It hurts. However, I was so compelled by this woman’s story that I couldn’t stop reading it like her story was a literary drug.
The protagonist isn’t just the “other woman” in the literal sense, the mistress sense. She is the other woman in how she relates to her co-workers who entertain themselves with idle chatter and gossip, her friendships with people vastly more educated and successful than her, and yes, with her lover, Dr. Malmberg. She willingly shares her body with him, but she doesn’t share her life. Though she desires more, she knows exactly what she is to Dr. Malmberg, an escape from the day to day life of being a doctor, husband and father.
It at this time our protagonist sparks up a friendship with a young woman named Alex. Alex is confident and magnetic, and the protagonist can’t help but get caught up in Alex’s intoxicating allure. Their relationship borders on the erotic. I must say the reason made sense to me but also made me gasp out loud once I found out why. Blackmail, trickery, betrayal all play a part in the lives of our protagonist, Dr. Malmberg and Alex. And once these elements play out, the reader doesn’t clutch the pearls in disgust. Instead, instead one might think, “Well, sometimes you have to be a less than a good person to get things done and certain things out of the way.”
Or as our protagonist states,” “Morals are for those who can afford them.” And in a world where being a less than ethical is rewarded or at least ignored, can any of anybody afford morals?
The Other Woman is written with a bittersweet pathos, our protagonist both wise and at times, infuriating. You relate to her longing and her loneliness. You relate to her desire to belong and her feelings of being above it all. You relate to her longing to have connections that are both carnal and cultural. But perhaps most of all, you want the protagonist to learn to develop a stronger sense of self in a confusing world that denies those things, especially for women. I’m older than the protagonist and I’m still struggling with this.
But not all is lost. There are layers of hope in The Other Woman as it draws to its close. Our protagonist starts a new journey, one that you wish is more fulfilling and where every wish she desires comes true, and perhaps one where she will learn to like herself just a bit more. Maybe Bohman will write a sequel, but I don’t exactly want her to at this point. For now let’s keep The Other Woman’s next step be a mystery and left up to the reader’s imagination.