The plot of Stern’s novel in which an older man who has a love affair with a younger woman and divorces his wife, could have easily turned into the typical, hackneyed plot that such a book often veers towards. Stern’s intelligent writing delves into the nuances and complications of marriage, middle age, physical attraction and love. The story astutely and sensitively makes us aware of the sacrifices and heartache that each party in this complicated, all-to-human situation suffer. “Love,” Stern writes, “Famous, frozen word concealing how many thousand feelings, the origin of so much story and disorder.”
Dr. Robert Merriwether is a profession of biology and physiology at Harvard in the late 1960s. He also practices medicine in his free time during the summer and that is when he meets Cynthia, a young college student who has made an appointment to get a prescription for birth control. When Cynthia starts running into him around Cambridge and eventually admits her attraction to Robert, he realizes how badly he was in denial about the state of his lifeless marriage. His wife had begun to withhold affections years ago, yet they remained married and functioned as a family for the sake of their four children. I felt genuine sympathy for this man who, up until he meets Cynthia, has just been going through the motions in his daily routine and in his relationships. After a weekend spent in the company of Cynthia he has a difficult time settling back into his normal life: “Sunday was difficult for Merriwether. Tomorrow he’d be back in his own rectangle: home-class-lab-club. The boxed life. Though not an empty box.” Because of Cynthia he starts giving lectures in other cities in the northeast so that he can have getaways with her for the weekend. He also spends a summer in France with her, another trip and experience that allows to have different adventures that he wouldn’t have previously considered: “They became easier and easier with each other. Her intelligence and wit delighted him. So many years he had been uncomfortable, sometimes miserable at Sarah’s incomprehension. Partly, it was that Sarah played the fool.”
As for Sarah, Robert’s wife, we also get her side of the story and the sacrifices which she has made for the marriage and for their family. She has given up having a career of her own to stay home and take care of the four Merriweather children and to tend to the creaky, old New England house passed down through Robert’s family.:
And he blamed her. As if her body could be purchased by three daily meals, and this leaky hutch which she alone kept up. (He couldn’t hammer a nail.) As if he really cared to make love to her. Frigid? No, no more than any woman with a husband who saw her as an interior broom. By no means frigid.
Contrary to Robert’s interests, Sarah had studied humanities and her Master’s thesis was on Courtly Love. The impending divorce has caused her to take some classes towards a Master of Arts in Teaching. She could support herself from the profit of the sale of their house and by teaching French and Spanish in local schools. She learns of Robert’s affair in a very public way, which is a particular embarrassment in their conservative, New England community. I especially felt sorry for Sarah because of the physical anguish this causes her. But she understands that her marriage had been a source of angst for years and the best decision for her is to separate from Robert. They live in their house together, in separate bedrooms, with their children for a year while the divorce is being finalized and the property is being sold. During this time they become so bitter and angry towards one another that they can only communicate with terse notes. The Merriwethers think that by staying together as long as possible that they are doing the best thing for their children, but the tension and fighting that their living situation causes seems to do more harm than good for the family. Stern’s narrative forces us to contemplate some difficult questions to which there are no easy answers: Why do we stay in a relationship? When is the right time to let go?
The final person in this triangle is Cynthia who is not the typical seductress that one would expect in such a story. It is obvious when Stern introduces her into the plot that she has every intention of seducing Robert and these scenes are cringe worthy. But as the story progresses we learn that Cynthia is a very intelligent young woman who is bored with men her own age; she works hard at her studies and also challenges Robert in ways that his wife never could. They have interesting discussions, they read together and they encourage one another’s interests. Cynthia’s relationship with Robert also causes her a great deal of stress and anxiety. She eventually transfers from Swathmore and moves to Cambridge so that she can be closer to Robert and she spends many hours alone while she waits for Robert to visit when he has free time. Stern’s makes his story stronger by showing that Cynthia and Robert’s relationship is not perfect, that no relationship is perfect. Cynthia suffers from bouts of depression and anxiety because of the pressure she puts on herself to achieve academic success and she and Robert often argue over this topic and many others. Stern surprisingly ends his novel on a positive note—Cynthia and Robert have enough love and kindness and respect for one another to stay together for a while. But will they know when it will be the right time to let go?
Trevor has also written about this title and has an interesting view of the book: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/31/richard-stern-other-mens-daughters/