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Blueprint for Disaster

“The other woman”—how many times have we heard that expression? Everything would be fine, if he weren’t already married, if there weren’t another woman. And, in extreme moments, something like this: “I have fantasized about his wife dying. It happens in brief moments before my brain realizes what it is doing, and I immediately feel ashamed of myself and have to try to cleanse it, wash away the terrible thought with a flood of I didn’t mean it!, just in case fate or God happens to be there, reading my mind. It is wrong to wish another person dead, I tell myself sternly, but still the thought comes back to me.”

Maybe his wife will leave him. Maybe she’ll meet someone else. “An accident would be best. Instantaneous death, even in my darkest fantasies I don’t want her to suffer. I just want her to disappear.” But what if there is an accident, and she lives, and then he has to take care of her? And much later, when irrational thoughts take over almost totally: “If I can’t have him, then no one should have him.” To wit, her obsessions have begun to take control of her, this unnamed young woman from a working class-background, who has fallen in love with one of the doctors in the hospital where she works in the cafeteria, mostly washing dishes and keeping the place clean.

You might think that so typical a situation would not be interesting, but that is the exact opposite of what is true about Therese Bohman’s The Other Woman. The writer is Swedish and already highly praised for an earlier novel, Drowned. Her skills as a novelist are remarkable. Not only does the reader side with her unnamed narrator’s misdeeds, but also when she eventually tries to act on her obsessions, we identify with the suspense, fearing that she will be discovered. We hope not. The narration is disturbingly convincing, though sometimes it’s a matter of wanting to slap her. “Don’t do that. You’re bound to get caught.”

The details of the hospital cafeteria—specifically its bad food—and its hierarchy are deadening. She’s working class, though she’s taken a few courses at a university and wants to be a writer; he, Dr. Carl Malmberg, has a name as if to assert his significance in contrast to her nondescript otherwomanstatus. She’s always aware of her inexpensive clothing and the cheap wine she drinks too much of in order to get high. Her life is boring; his, she is certain, is exciting. It’s difficult to tell how attractive she is, though he tells her she’s beautiful once their relationship becomes sexual. For certain, she is critical of much around her. As one of her female friends tells her, “Not much meets with your approval, does it?” Does that remark simply indicate a universal need to improve one’s self, especially where issues of class are involved, or is her criticism the only way she can react around the rich?

Dr. Malmberg is somewhere in his early fifties, twice married, with children from each union, including a twenty-four-year-old daughter who is a few years younger than the narrator. As the relationship continues surreptitiously (sometimes within the examining rooms of the Norrköping Hospital), it becomes a little kinky. On one occasion, he buys her some rather tasteless underclothing. And he insists that she act like a little girl.

So stressed is she by the relationship that one night she has a one-night stand with a man she encounters at a bar. Her need for affection is so great that she whispers into the man’s ears, “I love you,” which makes him quickly get away from her. She is torn apart by her on-going obsession with Dr. Malmberg’s wife, who obviously spends more time with him than she does. That’s the difficulty with an illicit relationship such as the one in Bohman’s novel and thousands of others like it. She doesn’t think she can continue to share him with his wife.

Then everything changes because of several surprising incidents, all from left field but believable. She’s had to regard Malmberg’s wife as the other woman, the obstacle to her happiness. But what happens in the wife discovers that her husband is having an affair? Doesn’t the wife begin to think of that woman as “the other woman?” Thus, Bohman’s surprising story has two other women, each understanding that another woman has made her into “the other woman.” Are they doubles? Mirrors of one another? Antagonists? Rivals? It’s quite a clever ending to what might normally be thought of as a hackneyed story.

I enjoyed everything about The Other Women except for the author’s style—too many run-on sentences and fragments that were often more intrusive than they should have been in depicting a woman whose jealousy results in a series of rash decisions. Still, in an inspired twist, Bohman—at the end—tosses out a moral question that involves not just one of the two other women but both of them. That conclusion lifts Therese Bohman’s novel far above the typical story of female jealousy.

Therese Bohman’s The Other Woman

Trans. by Marlaine Delargy

Other Press, 208 pp., $15.95

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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