Unfaithful: 11 Cheaters in Books

The love that leads to marriage begins with so much promise. But, in books as in life, the minute the spotlight shines on the happy couple, the cockroaches scatter for cover. Problems surface — boredom, obsession, or hormonally induced mistaken identity (oops you’re not who I thought you were), and those of us watching are riveted by the consequences — especially in the case of infidelity. Hence its perennial appearance in some of the world’s greatest fiction.

It’s hard to stay married, as these authors will attest, and if you’re in the throes of a break up, you’ll probably recognize yourself in one or more of these narratives. If a book gave you a kick in the pants to leave a marriage — or kept you from making a disastrous choice — let us know on Facebook or Twitter, #litsplit.

Anna Karenina

Reads like an opera libretto (no surprise: nine operas have been based on the novel), and it’s the same old story: man falls for nanny, woman falls for aristocrat whose moral compass seems to have lost its magnet, and evil omens everywhere predict the tragic end. Word of caution: if you feel yourself about to cheat, stay away from trains.



According to Joyce, sooner or later it’s inevitable: one cheats in his head, the other in her bed. It seems to work for Molly and Leopold and it’s oh so very 21st century: Leopold was ahead of his time with his emotional affairs.  

The Kreuzer Sonata

Tolstoy’s own marriage started off normally enough: they adored everything about each other. But after 50 years and 13 children, it was pure love/hate. Tolstoy’s point in this novel? No reason to marry for love — it’ll wear off in 5 seconds (well, 3 months to 3 years, depending on individual biology), and you’ll end up feeling nothing but contempt after the massive disappointment. So you might as well marry someone you don’t care much about: chances of it lasting are better. Lesson? Keep the one you think is just ok. Have an affair with the one you’re mad about.

Lady Chatterly’s Lover

The greatest bane to physical intimacy between men and women: she faked a simultaneous one and now every guy thinks this is normal. So how do you sustain this over a lifetime? You don’t.

The End of the Affair

It’s just too much stress, all that obsession and jealousy. Who knows who has it worse, the lovers or the spouses? Run for the nearest emotional bomb shelter. 

A Handful of Dust

Even those giant British houses aren’t big enough when one person doesn’t want to be in the marriage anymore. But this novel has two endings — a bleak one for the British audience, in which he dies and she marries somebody else after being spurned by her lover; and a pat one for the Americans in which everybody lives miraculously together even after all the emotional destruction.

Madame Bovary

Boredom, boredom, boredom. Yes, you can die of it in the wrong relationship. Flaubert was firing an early warning shot about life in the world of middle-class respectability. People do crazy things when they feel stifled.




Post-war suburbia gets out of hand as the perfectly manicured dream goes up in smoke. The wrong people move in, the neighborhood gets overgrown, and just beneath the surface, not one person respects marital boundaries. A New York Times review of the book recounts Norman Mailer’s advice to Updike to “keep his foot in the whorehouse door and forget about his damn prose style.” The prose style remained — but so did the foot.


The Ice Storm

Rick Moody’s 1994 novel returns to Updike’s era. In his version, lies and the myth of sexual freedom destroy bonds of intimacy and kill a child. Nobody seemed to be able to keep it zipped in this one and the fallout is deadly.


Revolutionary Road

It starts with so much promise; each seems to be on the brink of greatness and each is full of appreciation for the other’s talent and vision. Marriage and 1950s conformity take a hammer to their dreams. Want to see a relationship unravel in slow motion? This one gets you one bitter frame at a time.

The Forgotten Waltz

“I just can’t believe it. That all you have to do is sleep with somebody and get caught and you never have to see your in-laws again. Ever. Pfffft! Gone. It’s the nearest thing to magic I have yet found,” exclaims this melancholy novel’s main character. Oh Gina. If only it were that simple. This is Anne Enright’s latest, and you’ll find it on the shelves October 3rd.