On Private Acts
Review of Linda Gray Sexton's 1991 novel Private Acts, published September 2016 in Bilkent News.
It is almost evening, but summer is restful and lingers on the walls with its delightful slanted sun. I have shed my overshirt to browse, fingers warm on the spine of my latest conquest: “Private Acts.” The hour is perfect to be alone in the Bilkent library, and I sit against the window to enjoy the sweet four o’clock light. I prop the book open against my knees, willing to give what I think will be a mild and dull narrative the benefit of the doubt. This coincidental find will prove subtle in effect, but anything but gentle; by the time I’m halfway finished, being alone will no longer sound quite as appealing.
Set in late 1980s America, the book centers mainly around the lives of two couples: Maggie and Sy, and Alexis and Nicolas. In both marriages one partner’s career has all but eclipsed the other’s: Maggie has devoted herself to the care of her children, and Nicolas is doing very badly in an old business venture. To Alexis, Nicolas’s appeal was an ability to act with unwavering precision; but his indecision when handling business issues makes her decide he has lost all his vitality, and their marriage dissolves after she engages in an affair. Unlike the driven, ambitious Alexis, Maggie seeks contentment in a peaceful family life, but Sy’s prolonged business trips make her feel neglected to the point where she has an affair of her own. The book traces the lives of these four characters as they venture into matters of love and solitude, all trying to briefly touch what they believe they want. It’s the small details that make the narrative work, how awry and lonely it is. I feel the characters’ isolation with shocking clarity as every emotion is put aside or locked away in their efforts to be inscrutable, unreachable. It’s maddening to see all that could be resolved if somebody would simply stop pretending, sit down and say, “Here, this is what’s wrong with me. Here, I want you to hold out your hands—and I want you to touch me. Please, I need some intimacy,” but everyone wants to be impregnable, and nobody is equipped to handle it. Trapped inside their adult facades, all the characters are infantile in their avoidance of all that is honest and loving.
An overarching theme: None of them are ever happy. No choice is ever clear-cut, and there’s always something to lose. Maggie has confined herself to the house upon giving up her job, dependent on husband or lover, or both. Alexis has health issues and an empty home because she’s so immersed in her career, which curves asymptotically just short of the promotion she has aimed for. Nicolas can’t find love with either woman because he’s too consuming for one and too underwhelming for the other; Sy watches his wife and family slip away without quite knowing how or why. It’s almost as if America has laid before them a series of golden fruits and quietly said, “You can only have one piece,” but no one has heard her, and everyone tries to pick up just one more, eyes fixed on the next big thing. I am the observer, and I find it frightening.
Then there are their expectations of love, which are what leave me so rudely in the cold. I place a thumb over Maggie’s forlorn words, “What a cheat it all is…a man who promises you love, but gives you absence,” and Alexis’ suffocation by all her lovers—“she wonders if he, too, will someday bore and irritate her to the point where she will once again want to leave.” I am not yet obliged to think about such things, but it doesn’t keep me from feeling uncertain as I become privy to these small, domestic matters. It brings about a sinister disillusionment to watch people be broken apart by things they can’t help—strong personalities, high ambitions—with nothing being solved only because there is love involved, which is a delusion easy to find comfort in. The definition of the word “love” itself sticks when I glance over it, when Maggie wonders “if love always has to be just one emotion masquerading as another…perhaps, with nurturing, love will grow past its original incarnation.” In the time it takes for me to feel this, Maggie and Alexis have already made their sacrifices. In the back of my mind I have to wonder whether I will ever be prepared to do the same.
The book wraps around the lives of others, and as in real life most things stay undecided. I’m only given hints of what will happen, but I don’t feel like I need anything more. It’s what I feel that now counts; not the plot or the characters, but what they’ve left for me to consider. How are things supposed to be balanced? Where does love come in and acceptance stop? These are cursory questions that beg for visceral answers.
“Private Acts” is striking not in subject or prose, but rather in the way it addresses little, unvoiceable anxieties; it seems to tell you only that people are all vulnerable, and that they’re always watching one another. As I slip it over the checkout desk my hand brushes the glossy print inside, taking with it a final tactile memory of this strange, evocative read. I hope the next person to read it will find as much in it as I have.