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The Mirror in the Well - Micheline Aharonian Marcom What most intrigued me about this story is the consideration of a dilemma that I suspect many middle-aged married sorts can relate to, which is the longing for a kind of intimacy that familiarity makes impossible.

There are many things she can say to her lover in the first weeks of their affair that she cannot say to him later and that she can never communicate to the husband, that can be said when one is known sexually without the habits and interceding fears of the conventional self and before the roles are set and the patterns established, when it is only the vibrations of the man and the vibrations of the woman, then everything is seeable in nature, the essences emerge.

Oh, to delight in the intimacy of that potential, despite knowing how misguided it can turn out to be. Realizing that you may never again experience it can be heartbreaking and crazy-making.

I happened upon this novella via two fine reviews, Steve Kendall's and Knig-o-lass's. Rather than repeat what's been said, I'll attempt to add a couple of things to the overall take on the story and erotica in general.

There's so much parody going on -- mostly of 50 Shades, which I haven't read -- which is fine, and I've enjoyed some of it, but there is erotica deserving literary respect and I consider this that, which I found refreshing because lately I've been disgruntled about how snide and rude we've become about sex in general, or else pathologically prudish, such that almost anything said on the subject reads as derision or disdain.

And granted, sex begs for both, about which the narrator says of the main character: "She knows, when she is talking to her son and telling him how it is that he was made, of the reproductive organs penis vagina and --- Yuck, he says to her, and laughs, and she laughs also."

That said, I'll make no more disclaimers about inevitable and maybe even funny puns.

The gist of the story is a middle-aged married woman seeking sexual and emotional release as the recipient of lots of oral sex with a middle-aged married lover, mostly on the floor of his wood-working shop, which brought to mind Lady Chatterly's encounters, and I couldn't help reading this as a reworking of that story. But this story is much darker, and goes places with metaphor and psyche that Lawrence didn't even approach.

I was also reminded of Milan Kundera writing about the ways in which we need to be seen, which I've lifted from GR quotes.

“We all need someone to look at us. we can be divided into four categories according to the kind of look we wish to live under. the first category longs for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes, in other words, for the look of the public. the second category is made up of people who have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes. they are the tireless hosts of cocktail parties and dinners. they are happier than the people in the first category, who, when they lose their public, have the feeling that the lights have gone out in the room of their lives . . . then there is the third category, the category of people who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love. their situation is as dangerous as the situation of people in the first category. one day the eyes of their beloved will close, and the room will go dark. and finally there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present. they are the dreamers.” (The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

All literature is ultimately about that, as in being revealed and recognized and vulnerable. In literary erotica, sex is the central metaphor in what tend to be the most engaging and/or alienating of vulnerable experiences, when few things matter more -- literally and figuratively -- than how we look at each other.

You're plumbing psychic and sexual depths, which means potential for nuance and irony and every other literary thing to get bogged down in the figurative and literal muck and mire, which is what makes literary erotic storytelling so hard difficult.

And this is about the affair of a middle-aged and well-educated American woman, so you're dealing with social constructs and conditioning, including sexism, and a complexity of conflicting obligations and desires.

Through the first half of the book I had reason to believe, and was hoping, the dilemmas wouldn't culminate in self-destruction driven by the woman's self-loathing. The point of the oral sex being a celebration of female sexuality. And the relationship was intimate in the truest sense, as in that rare sort allowing mutual revelation and understanding and pleasure. But alas.

I wasn't expecting or even wanting happily ever after, and I appreciated the fearlessness with which Marcom explored the dark side. But the narrative wound up reading like a bad Freudian case study rendering everything -- most of all female sexuality -- pathological, and ruined what had the potential to be a much better and more original story.

And this was especially disappointing because when not reading like a bad case study it reads like a long prose poem. Could have used an editor to help navigate some unwieldy streams of consciousness, but lots of fine language nonetheless. Four stars for that and the premise and the sex before it got so hopelessly bogged down.