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Ellen Douglas: A Lifetime Burning

Corinne is hovering around the age of sixty and still wants sex from her husband. He, however, is not delivering. She reminisces – in the form of diary which she plans to leave to her three children – about her life, particularly her relationship with George, her husband and their father. George, like most husbands, has been far from perfect. He is a doctor but gave up a fairly lucrative career as a surgeon as he lost faith in medicine and now only does emergency work, getting people out of the harmful hospital as soon as possible. He has made a series of dumb investments. And he has had (or is having), to Corinne’s knowledge, two affairs – one with a female neighbour she nicknames The Toad and another with a young man at the hospital, the same age as their son, whom she nicknames The Muskrat. Corinne herself has been far from perfect, having had a lesbian affair and having married George in the first place on the rebound, after an affair with an older married man.

Corinne has twice been in love with George – the first time sometime after their marriage and now, more recently, when he has left her bed and is consorting with The Toad or The Muskrat. She feels unsatisfied – not only in her marriage but in her work and in her life. Her kids are all grown up and though they appear – particularly the rock musician, William, who lives in California with the strange tenant, who eventually burns the house down, and the trash-farming, Jesus-loving neighbours – they seem hazy, almost incidental to her life. No, it’s George that counts, George with his affairs, his garden, his long shifts at the hospital but there is a barrier, even (or especially) after thirty years of marriage. Is that the role of woman – to be forever on the margin, unable to connect? Her great-aunt and George’s grandmother (Corinne and George are third cousins) hated her husband so much she killed herself, seeing no other way out. Corinne’s contemporaries turn to their families, their drugs, Jesus. But are they are satisfied? Can they connect? That is the question, Douglas is saying, we all have to answer.

Publishing history

First published 1982 by Random House