He belonged to that class of menvaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, cleverwho were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue. But the Michael Beard of this time was a man of narrowed mental condition, anhedonic, monothematic, stricken. His fifth marriage was disintegrating, and he should have known how to behave, how to take the long view, how to take the blame. Werent marriages, his marriages, tidal, with one rolling out just before another rolled in? But this one was different. He did not know how to behave, long views pained him, and for once there was no blame for him to assume, as he saw it. It was his wife who was having the affair, and having it flagrantly, punitively, certainly without remorse. He was discovering in himself, among an array of emotions, intense moments of shame and longing. Patrice was seeing a builder, their builder, the one who had repointed their house, fitted their kitchen, retiled their bathroom, the very same heavyset fellow who in a tea break had once shown Michael a photo of his mock-Tudor house, renovated and tudorized by his own hand, with a boat on a trailer under a Victorian-style lamppost on the concreted front driveway, and space on which to erect a decommissioned red phone box. Beard was surprised to find how complicated it was to be the cuckold. Misery was not simple. Let no one say that this late in life he was immune to fresh experience.
He had it coming. His four previous wives, Maisie, Ruth, Eleanor, Karen, who all still took a distant interest in his life, would have been exultant, and he hoped they would not be told. None of his marriages had lasted more than six years, and it was an achievement of sorts to have remained childless. His wives had discovered early on what a poor or frightening prospect of a father he presented, and they had protected themselves and got out. He liked to think that if he had caused unhappiness, it was never for long, and it counted for something that he was still on speaking terms with all his exes.
But not with his current wife. In better times, he might have predicted for himself a manly embrace of double standards, with bouts of dangerous fury, perhaps an episode of drunken roaring in the back garden late at night, or writing off her car, and the calculated pursuit of a younger woman, a Samson-like toppling of the marital temple. Instead he was paralyzed by shame, by the extent of his humiliation. Even worse, he amazed himself with his inconvenient longing for her. These days, desire for Patrice came on him out of nowhere, like an attack of stomach cramp. He would have to sit somewhere alone and wait for it to pass. Apparently there was a certain kind of husband who thrilled at the notion of his wife with other men. Such a man might arrange to have himself bound and gagged and locked in the bedroom wardrobe while ten feet away his better half went at it. Had Beard at last located within himself a capacity for sexual masochism? No woman had ever looked or sounded so desirable as the wife he suddenly could not have. Conspicuously, he went to Lisbon to look up an old friend, but it was a joyless three nights. He had to have his wife back, and dared not drive her away with shouting or threats or brilliant moments of unreason. Nor was it in his nature to plead. He was frozen, he was abject, he could think of nothing else. The first time she left him a noteStaying over at Rs tonight. xx Pdid he go round to the mock-Tudor ex-council semi with the shrouded speedboat on the hard standing and a hot tub in the pint- sized backyard to mash the mans brains with his own monkey wrench? No, he watched television for five hours in his overcoat, drank two bottles of wine, and tried not to think. And failed.
Excerpted from Solar by Ian McEwan Copyright © 2010 by Ian McEwan. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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