"The Blackmailer's Guide to Love," the latest novel from Oceanside native Marian Thurm, is an unusual tale of adultery, because the story of the affair is told with sympathy from opposing perspectives. We spend half the chapters with Mel Fleischer, an aspiring writer deeply in love with her psychologist husband, and half with Julia Myerson, a stalled, depressed doctoral student who begins an affair with her wonderful, handsome, happily married psychologist.
Happily married until then, anyway.
"We are all of us on this earth imperfect creatures," Thurm remarked during a recent Zoom interview. "As a novelist, you have to make an effort to understand why people do the troubling things they do. There are always reasons."
It's tempting to see this novel, Thurm's eighth, as an autobiographical roman à clef. Mel, 25, has an editorial assistant job at a Manhattan magazine working for a high-powered editor. At the same age, Thurm had a similar job at Esquire. Like her creator, Mel has her first story accepted by The New Yorker, and goes on to write "stories mostly in the present tense, mostly about the infinite ways, large and small, in which her characters manage to disappoint one another" — a perfect description of Thurm's oeuvre.
Thurm also gives Mel, later in life, a distressing review in The New York Times — much like the one Thurm received from a dreaded Times critic upon the publication of her second book. "She used the words ‘abundant talents’ — ‘next time, perhaps, they will be better served.’ I can’t believe I memorized it!" Thurm said. "Thankfully, she was very pleased with my next book, published the following year."
"Pretty much everything I've written comes from somewhere in my life, from someone I've encountered," Thurm conceded, but is quick to point out that "Blackmailer" diverges from her real biography in significant ways. Here's the big one: the author has been married for 47 years to a boy she met in her honor English class at Oceanside Junior High, and he is a retired attorney.
Still, many of the childhood memories that thread through the book are real. "My parents lived in their house in Oceanside for 56 years," Thurm said, and she has given a few of the highlights of her youth there to her characters. She points out the following passage from the novel, which comes straight from life.
"Not long after she’d taught herself to read the summer she turned 4, [Mel] grabbed her copy of ‘The Cat in the Hat’ and without her parents noticing her absence, slipped away to bang on the doors of some of the seven or eight suburban homes in their cul-de-sac, boasting to her neighbors as they stepped outside for a better look at her, I can read!"
Though Mel seems like the more autobiographical character, not all the memories go to her. It's Julia whose gets Thurm's beloved second grade teacher, and the experience of being invited to her house to sit beside her Christmas tree and sing holiday songs. "Because I was Jewish, that was such a thrill for me," Thurm explained.
But right there under that tree is the divide between fact and fiction. Because little Julia is wondering if she should tell Mrs. Longmeadow the truth about how her arm was broken — her father is responsible.
Little Marian was wondering nothing of the kind. "I had a childhood so happy, I mistakenly believed that every family was like my own, that every home had an openly loving atmosphere like ours," she said. "It wasn't until much later that I began to understand I was completely wrong about that."
This disillusionment clearly made a huge impression on the author, whose work almost always deals with people behaving badly. "Pleasure Palace," a new collection of short stories published at the same time as "Blackmailer," focuses entirely on couples and families falling apart. Yet like Charlie Fleischer and Julia Myerson, the cheaters in "Blackmailer," they are still basically decent human beings.
"The longer I live, the more I see that things so often don’t work out well. There's conflict and disappointment everywhere; there are endless, endless stories. I find myself utterly astonished by the behavior of others; for me, there's nothing more fascinating in this world," Thurm said. "To share a Mark Twain quote that I love, ‘There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.‘ "