The First Affair
by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
Published by Atria Books
Genre: women's literature
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
5 / 5
Do you ever wonder about the women involved in sex scandals? Do you want to ask them, "What the hell were you thinking?" Do you shake your head in disgust? Blame them? Salute them? Pity them?
I'll admit that I was fascinated by Monica Lewinsky. I didn't find Bill Clinton to be particularly good looking, and certainly not hot, but power is the ultimate aphrodisiac (thank you, Henry Kissinger, for giving voice to that), so who knows? Perhaps if I worked with him, I would have been more open to him, sexually speaking. Or any sort of speaking. Lewinsky was young, and when I was in my early twenties, my taste in men was ridiculous.
And so we come to First Affair, which tells the story of a young college graduate's White House internship and the close - I do mean close - proximity in which she finds herself with the President of the United States.
Jamie McAllister is fresh out of college and watching all of the money that went to her degree appear to be worthless. She got an internship at the White House and is singularly unimpressed. Internships don't pay for student loans. Thanks to the kindness of a friend, she's able to live rent free ... for now, anyway. But she is restless and wants a real, paying job.
As for President Rutland (I'm sure the "rut" part of his name is not an accidental choice on the part of the authors), he of the taint of rumors regarding a previous pass made at a young woman, Jamie has little to no contact with him. Until, that is, a chance meeting in the hallway. Their paths cross, and then they cross again. And then they cross with a little more passion.
Jamie's affair resembles Lewinsky's in many ways: the physical natures are quite similar, and the scandal surrounding it erupts with the same feral ferocity. Jamie is, remember, young. She is impressionable. She does not have the benefit of much life experience, and her decisions reflect that. She does not know, for instance, how to choose her friends or how to know whom she can trust. Can she trust Rutland? Herself?
The romance - and it is a romance - is fascinating. We know why Jamie is attracted to Rutland, and we come to learn why he is attracted to her. What we don't know is why he risked so much (the affair takes place during an election cycle) to be with her. We can guess, based on what we know of other powerful men brought down by their dangly bits. Perhaps he felt untouchable (no pun intended). Perhaps it is as simple as hubris. Or maybe Rutland's passion for Jamie was so intense that the threat of scandal and ruin just did not matter.
There is quite a bit of intrigue going on here as well. Jamie gets betrayed, and betrayed again. She comes to question her character judgments, and rightfully so. She is hopelessly naive, but that's what makes her so believable as a character. What twenty-two-year-old woman in love with an older man (or any age man, for that matter) manages to think straight? She believes in him and she trusts him. She cannot conceive of him ever abandoning her or betraying her.
Yes, there is the matter of Mrs. Rutland. We don't find out much about her, but there is a photograph of her with her husband that piques Jamie's guilt. Jamie is very much aware that Rutland has a wife, and, like most of us would, she justifies her relationship with him. She occasionally allows reality to creep in, but she refuses to let it take root.
Jamie is wonderfully written. She exasperates us and frustrates us, yet she makes us care about her. There were times while reading this that I hoped she and Rutland could be together and be happy. Like Jamie, I didn't want to face reality.
I am a fan of McLaughlin and Kraus, having enjoyed Between You and Me a great deal. I enjoyed this book as well, and I had a difficult time letting go of it when I finished. I may not have always liked Jamie, and I may not have always agreed with her decisions, but I was on her side.
She made me more empathetic to the Monica Lewinskys of the world.