Here we have a book called Other Men’s Daughters, with an introduction by none other than Philip Roth. If the title makes readers wince and the author introducing it (who happens to be one of my favorites) makes other readers cringe, I suspect the combination of the two — Other Men’s Daughters, introduction by Phillip Roth — will lead many to dismiss the book with disdain.
On the one hand, that would be a shame because they will miss out on a superbly written novel about delusions of a middle-aged man and the painful dissolution of a marriage. On the other hand, they will avoid the very thing they hope to avoid: a book where an older professor (just reached forty), ruminates on his middle-age, provides wisdom about the sexes and sex, and has an affair with a student. To turn more readers away, it should be noted that the girl is the seductress of the man who would otherwise have never thought such a thing possible. But I hope readers do not turn away and rather engage with this complicated look at a time (the late 1960s, just on the cusp of the Me Decade) and place (Northeastern academia), where “freedom” seemed possible and where anyone who judged you for using it was a caveman. It seemed like the progressive worldview, and it’s fascinating to see how things have changed. The book can be forgiven for some of its blindspots because Stern does seem aware that this worldview is not all it’s been built up to seem.
I will admit that while I read Other Men’s Daughters I vacillated between admiration and repulsion. The book vacillates between a nuanced depiction of the tragedy of something like this affair that, after all, does happen and a kind of understanding for, even sympathy for, a man who would engage in such an extracurricular activity. In the end, I think it’s a tremendous work, one that should not be dismissed as just another book in a long history of books about older men and the conquests of their middle age. It most definitely is that book, but it’s also much more. The provocative title itself is, I believe, an acknowledgment that this perspective is not without its deep, insidious problems.
Other Men’s Daughters begins with an evening scene. The Merriwether family home is filled with husband, wife, and children doing their own interesting things, “this beautiful human hour.” Merriwether is an old, respected family name in Puritanical, ascetic New England. This particular iteration of the Merriwethers, one that began when Robert and Sarah married a couple of decades earlier, looks stable on the outside, but we learn from the second page that the couple have been struggling for years, that even when they first met and thought they were falling in love “much more of the world was in their heads than in their talk with each other.”
Robert Merriwether is a Harvard professor who teaches classes in such things as physiology. He knows how the human body works. He understands “what is making you toss in your beds,” and he understands that it is a strange folly that he cannot use this to reason himself off of his infatuation for Cynthia Ryder, someone “for whom he is almost ready to give up the thousand formulas which compose this beautiful human hour.”
It’s a misstep that doesn’t fully get corrected when Stern introduces Robert’s wandering heart along with unflattering depictions of his suffering wife, Sarah:
He explained his work to her. The black pearl eyes lit with excitement: how she wished she’d studied science so she could really follow. How long was it before they both realized she not only didn’t follow but was bored stiff pretending? Dr. Merriwether retreated. Then, five or six years ago, Sarah stopped pretending. She opened a door inside her to a very tough little lady. The lady said, “This is it. I am no doormat. You are no Einstein.” Venus in armor. A new Sarah who corrected everyone, who lectured everyone.
While Stern is describing a common friction between man and wife, he rarely conveys sympathy for Sarah — or, later, for Cynthia. Dr. Merriwether usually comes off as someone we should forgive, in particular when we see how innocent he appears to be when Cynthia pursues him, how natural it is that he’d eventually falter given his current relationship, given what was being offered, given the time period.
Importantly, this book takes place in the late 1960s, and Stern is very aware of how the decade in general and the Pill in particular have made the unthinkable much more thinkable.
Women, thought Dr. Merriwether, did have difficult times, particularly women who grew up between the Twenties and Sixties; they smelled new freedom in the air, they saw young women who enjoyed it, yet felt they themselves hadn’t been prepared for it. Even scholarly, New England girls such as Sarah had been raised as charmers, dreamers. If they were almost content, they sensed they shouldn’t be.
Later, when Cynthia’s father begins to learn of his daughter’s relationship with Merriwether, his other daughter says, “The Pill’s changed everything, Daddy. You have to get used to it.” Before Merriwether meets Mr. Ryder, he says to Cynthia, “Your father’s not a caveman.” There’s an awareness of a new time, but the characters — and Stern, to a great extent — while aware of folly are not aware of what that folly really entails.
For example, when Sarah’s cousin Timmy runs into Merriwether with Cynthia, he’s understanding and only wishes the best; he’s not a caveman either, apparently. He renders his warning, though, but it has more to do with Merriwether’s own fall from grace. It has nothing to do with Cynthia’s predicament. She’s still seen as the predator:
Timmy looked to see if Cynthia was coming. “Will you let me say something, though? About young girls?”
“In a way. I know the danger of classifying human beings, but I’ve known a lot of these girls. That’s been my companionship. Sex and tenderness. Nothing more, not even friendship. So I have to meet many women. The last few years I’ve felt a terrific drive in them. They want, they want, and it’s we not-quite-graybeards who give them the most the quickest. We teach them, we spend on them, we show them off, we tell them what everything means. We’re their Graduate School. Which means they’re closer to graduation through us. And that means there can be lots of tears when Graduation Day rolls around.”
Another warning comes later, and it fortunately leaves Cynthia out of the equation, but it is still focused on Merriwether’s “comfort” and how all is going to fall apart:
“Robert, I will do what I can. I wish I could dissuade you, but it’s clear I can’t. You want something, and your actions suit your want. Just consider this,” and Fischer waved his arms around the old room, the chairs, the books, the fire, the couches, the upstairs noise of children. The paraphernalia of comfort. But there was a force here that destabilized everything. Fischer was no guide in these questions of feeling. “If this isn’t enough, well, I pity you.”
The latter half of the novel is much more aware of the emotional toll, though, and we get a better sense of Merriwether’s own cruelty, which led me to forgive Stern for much of what came before. Cynthia is still an overconfident flirt who doesn’t have the least idea of what Merriwether is giving up for her. For example, there is a moment when she suggests they introduce Merriwether’s own daughter to Cynthia’s father: “Merriwether drove on the wrong side of the road until she said she was sorry.” But the attention shifts from this budding relationship to its doom. Cynthia and Sarah still have no advocate in their corner, but at least Merriwether doesn’t come off scot-free.
For me, then, Other Men’s Daughters is a frustrating yet illuminating book. It is impeccably written, all the more troubling since it uses this skill to present what we rightfully consider an abhorrent world view. But, again, it is a world view worth grappling with, and the book does a tremendous job giving us much to grapple with while we watch the fireworks and destruction of an old home giving way to new found “freedom.”