Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Affairs of Others.
In a post-9/11 New York still bedeviled by color-coded terrorist alerts, young widow Celia Cassell has established herself not far from the home she shared with her husband. She lost him slow bit by agonizing bit to cancer, an experience that has left her hollow with grief and secrets. Now the proprietor of an apartment building, Celia looks to the sturdy walls of her new life to shield her from the upheaval that has left her alone. Surrounded by the sparse furnishings that define her new role in the world, Celia draws comfort from the routine responsibilities of a landlady to George, a gay man; the Braunsteins, a married couple at odds over bringing a baby into a compromised world; and Mr. Coughlan, a retired ferry captain whose daughter struggles with the independence born of the sea.
So far, Celia’s world has functioned as planned, well-oiled and organized—that is, until George decides to travel and write, requesting that Celia allow him to sublet his place to a friend recovering from a painful divorce. It is Celia’s intention to say no, but once she meets the dramatic, charismatic Hope, caution gives way to acquiescence. Soon George is on his way and Hope spreads her abundance of spirit throughout the apartment, comfortable cushions, plush throws, and the fragrance of fresh flowers permeating the air. Unwittingly, dangers slips in the door along with the string of sophisticated friends and well-wishers, a disharmony Celia will identify through the ceiling that separates her from her new tenant: footfalls overhead, sobs, subdued voices, ominous thumps.
While Celia’s position as landlady offers a semblance of order in a life gone out of control, it is a false sense of security as her tenants become less abstract with the arrival of Hope and the disappearance of Mr. Coughlan. Suddenly, Celia is concerned for the quiet man who rents her top floor apartment, who never locks his door, who opens his window to the call of the port. None of the tenants are the same since Hope’s arrival, certainly not Celia herself. The carefully constructed boundaries of a lonely life are breached, Celia remembering the final days with her husband, her loss of self or direction, the attraction of a place where order might be a means to continue. Once cracked, her defenses are obliterated as Celia is drawn to unexplored territory, her repressed emotions and sexuality reawakened, defenseless.
There are scenes that overflow with a surfeit of conviviality, others infused with the dramas of people at odds with the choices they have made, scenes of violence, eroticism, confusion, drunken anger, certainty and of foolishness, all of them as precise as a bird caught in mid-flight. Loyd strips Celia’s world of pretensions, its daily rituals, attempts at order, societal conventions promoting harmony among tenants but insufficient to bring serenity to a damaged spirit.
Loyd beautifully captures the nuances of characters coexisting under one roof. Each tenant takes a more particular shape after Hope’s arrival, Celia’s indifference shattered by an excess of humanity that calls her back to life. While each person brings a distinct flavor to the novel, it is Celia who captures the imagination, embracing sorrow and renewal, unable to resist a connection that both terrifies and amazes her. Brave, raw, brutally honest and slyly observant, this is a novel about life and death, the nature of extremes and the courage to move forward in the face of the unknown: “Life could be benevolent. I’d forgotten.”