Well, the blurb on the front cover that calls Karen Connelly’s The Change Room a “juicy peach of a novel” certainly hits the nail on the head. Just imagine a woman biting into a fresh, ripe peach, with the juice dribbling down her chin, and you’ll have some idea of what to expect from this book and how it’s going to make you feel. That, and it’s going to get you to think about relationships.
The Change Room is a beautifully written literary novel with a lot of graphic, lovingly depicted sex—between women and between men and women—with a lot of attention to the emotional aspects of sex but also just pleasure for pleasure’s sake. In fact, the novel is about searching for erotic and sensual pleasure amidst the weight of mid-life middle class married life with young children. Eliza Keenan is a woman in her early forties who lives in Toronto with her beloved family. She loves her math professor husband Andrew—who is adorably described as “deliciously rumpled.” Eliza runs her own high-end floral business. They have two young sons who are five and six to whom both parents are tenderly dedicated. They own a house (plus a mountain of debt from renovating it). Eliza is on the go from dawn to dusk most days with her family, domestic, and business responsibilities. Really, she is living the middle-class dream. How could she possibly ask for more? Eliza thinks:
You take this peace and love for granted every single day. You abuse it. I don’t take it for granted. I help to create it every single day. I have dedicated my life to it. How self-righteous! You make family life sound like a religious vocation. That’s the smartest thing you’ve said in ages. It is a religious vocation. It requires the same level of dedication.
The “more” that she wants is the exploration of most of the book. And the novel lingers there over and over, unabashedly. The Change Room really got me thinking about the genre boundaries between what we consider “literary” or realist fiction and what gets shelved as erotica and/or romance. After reading the first of many sex scenes, I was astounded to realize that I couldn’t think of any other novel that explored sex in the same way that it delved into so many other aspects of life in minute detail. Why and how exactly did it become convention to fade-to-black or only mention sex briefly in this kind of fiction? The novel at the point of the first sex scene is still introducing you to the character of Eliza and her relationship with Andrew; the way that they have sex is crucial to your understanding of who they both are and the nature of their relationship. It seemed so natural to me to have this in-depth description of sex at that juncture in the story. At the same time, it was incredibly remarkable because it’s so rare in this type of book.
So the sex between Andrew and Eliza is an early, important glimpse into their relationship and characters, yes. But it’s also just really fun and titillating to read, as if it’s a testament to the focus on the importance of pleasure in and of itself throughout the book. And there’s plenty more as the novel goes on: damn, the sex between Eliza and Shar, the woman Eliza meets at the community pool and falls into an affair with, is incredibly hot. It’s wonderful to see a middle-aged woman portrayed as so shamelessly sexual and to see sexuality affirmed as important and, in a way, sacred. I don’t remember the last time I found a book simultaneously so arousing and thought-provoking. The novel is very sexy throughout, but it also doesn’t have that removed-from-the-“real-world” feel that you get often in erotica or romance (not that there’s anything wrong with that; this novel just isn’t that). The sex—lots of sex—is seamlessly integrated into Eliza’s life and the presence of all the sensuality and erotic doesn’t erase the ugliness out in the world either. It’s almost as if sex is part of the rest of her life! (I should mention the novel has some flashbacks to a scene of sexual assault and mentions of childhood sexual abuse).
The Change Room reminded me a lot of Zoey Leigh Peterson’s novel Next Year For Sure, which I also loved. (See my full review of that novel here). This isn’t surprising, since the novels have superficial and deep elements in common. They’re both about middle class white people, yes. (Although Next Year For Sure is concerned with a particular crisis of meaning in your late twenties or early thirties, whereas The Change Room is distinctly focused on the middle age of your forties and fifties). But what the novels really share is an intense preoccupation with relationships and an investigation of the failings of heterosexual monogamy.
This is where The Change Room isn’t a racy, escapist story about a woman having a same-sex affair. Or maybe it’s that The Change Room isn’t only that. (Side note: I especially appreciated that Eliza had had another relationship with a woman when she was younger that her husband knew about, so that her queerness or coming out isn’t a focus in the novel at all). It’s a cliché but it’s true here: Eliza has an affair not because she doesn’t love and desire her husband, but because something is missing from the relationship. It’s a symptom that something isn’t working; for Eliza, it’s that her sexual and erotic desires aren’t being fulfilled. One of the major shortcomings of normative straight monogamous relationships is the assumption that one person—your partner—can meet all sorts of different emotional, social, sexual, and erotic needs. It’s nuts when you think about that: what one person can possibly live up to that? And where does that leave the individual’s responsibilities for their own well-being and happiness?
I’ve been focused so far on Eliza, who is the protagonist, after all. But Shar is a fascinating, complex character who could certainly merit being at the centre of her own novel. At first for the readers, like for Eliza, Shar is merely an enigmatic, glamorous, sexy woman. She’s younger than Eliza. She’s Iranian and French and speaks French, English, and Farsi. She’s lived all over the world. She’s a sex worker. She’s frank and open about all kinds of non-normative sexuality. She’s a beautiful fantasy of all the kinds of freedom and openness Eliza doesn’t have in her life. She’s perfect, like all new lovers feel before you really know who they are as a person. But Connelly smartly doesn’t leave us or Eliza there, turning the impulse to exoticization on its head by characterizing Shar in all her complexity and flaws and humanity. One of my favourite lines in the book was when Shar is contemplating her upcoming retirement from sex work to working as a therapist. Connelly writes: “Don’t be afraid, she told herself. It’s just a new life.” It’s an intensely profound yet simple statement, perhaps one that spoke to me particularly as I’m in the same kind of transitional time in my career.
Unfortunately I didn’t read The Change Room at the pool, beach, or lake, which is really too bad because this supremely smart and sexy book is a perfect beach read for the summer. A book to turn you on and get your brain thinking, what more could you want! Don’t be like me! Get yourself a copy of The Change Room, grab your swimsuit, and get yourself to a body of water and sunshine asap.
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