The Adulteries of Rachel: Bonus Content
A long time ago when I was working in theater, I came across Michael Frayn’s amazing play Copenhagen—I think as a reader’s theater production—and I was absolutely smitten with the way Frayne uses variations to circle around the why of something. It’s a tight cast (three characters), and they keep resetting the scene, each time adding a new layer to the story. So that had stuck with me. I had also been reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, (you can read my blog post on Bovary here), and the synthesis in my head produced The Adulteries of Rachel. I like to think of it like Sliding Doors, but x 6, because reality doesn’t just bifurcate, it splits into six equally true but mutually exclusive paths.
Frayn’s play uses physics, and specifically Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, throughout as the characters try to reconstruct his motivations. Rachel is a thought experiment projected into the future, a he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not, exploring the why of adultery. It also uses physics, specifically the concept of superposition and the dilemma posed by Schrödinger’s cat where multiple possibilities coexist until the moment of action: the observer opens the box. The cat is either alive or dead. So in each variation there are these repeating-but-different moments: Matthew tells Rachel he has a cat, a dog, a plant. Does he have all of them? One of them? None? Which one? They are all equally true and equally false.
More importantly, in each variation Matthew has something to say about writing and his writing process, and a good half of the novella is my reflections on writing and being a writer. I had a lot of fun coming up with the pulpy novel-within-a-novel (although occasionally people will tell me they like that part best!). I love the way the reader has to piece together Matthew’s novel out of order, and the way the ‘quoted’ passages of his book make Rachel’s story feel more real, even though nothing that ‘happens’ in the book is real after the first Theme section.
The earliest versions of the novella originally ended with Variation VI. It was only after taking time off to write Crazy Grandma Genius Baby & Me that I could come back with a comic spirit and write a happy ending. My hope, however, is that the coda remains ambiguous—it is Rachel’s version of Iseult’s Liebstod—an ecstatic dream of love fulfilled, which is probably 9/10th illusion.
You can read my Author Interview with Barbara Russell on her website.
There are a number of nods to Madame Bovary in the novella. Rachel’s daughter is named Emma. Flaubert himself makes an honorary, although unnamed, appearance in the book as the moderator.