There’s something melodramatically untidy about The Unbreakables, the story of a woman who plunges herself into a period of hedonistic self-discovery in France when her husband confesses to a double-digit number of affairs. On the whole it thinks itself much more daring than it is, and sometimes the melodrama pitches a little bit too high, leaving the reader rubbing their ears and wondering how on earth things got that bad.
Sophie Bloom has a very comfortable, very good marriage with her sexy doctor husband, Gabe, the only man she’s ever loved. Correction – she thinks their marriage is comfortable and good. On her forty-second birthday and during a happy dinner party, she finds out that her husband is a serial adulterer. While Sophie gave up her dreams and ambitions to raise their now-nineteen year old daughter Ava, Gabe has cheated on Sophie with numerous women, making him the most prolific philanderer in their small Illinois town. Sophie is, understandably, at a loss for what to do beyond being furious. Worse, when she confronts Gabe, he says he would’ve kept going if he hadn’t been caught. Because Gabe and Sophie got together in their teens and didn’t date many other people, she has become sister-like in her familiarity, and thanks to a lot unexciting attempts at conceptive sex a few years earlier, has stopped arousing him – which is even more of a blow, considering it was his low sperm count that turned sex into a science experiment for both of them. And to make things even worse one of her best friends is among Gabe’s conquests, and another helped him hide the truth from Sophie for five years.
Clearly, Sophie needs a revenge plan – and one is made for her when she learns Ava, studying alone in Paris, has suffered her own humiliating cheating situation. Sophie throws caution to the wind and jets off to Paris with a one-way ticket and no other plan other than to comfort Ava. She quickly learns that her daughter’s post-breakup fling with her married art professor may have resulted in a pregnancy. As Sophie tries to figure out a way to tell her daughter that her parents are divorcing and helps her handle her messy life, Sophie begins again, creating a list of rules – the titular Unbreakables – for herself to follow. Most of them are self-pleasure centered (and many of them feel ripped off from Eat Pray Love), and in light of Gabe’s affairs she’s fine with chucking her job to live in a hotel, sleep with twentysomething French folks and become deeply entangled in the life of a dying sculptress. Which life will Sophie choose for herself – the American one she left behind or her new, daring one across the ocean?
The Unbreakables would have been a fun fuck-it-all-let’s-go-to-Europe novel if it weren’t for a few troubling undercurrents woven throughout. The best part of the book is Sophie, who is rightfully selfish and trying to enjoy herself and her independence for the first time in her life. I enjoyed the complicated love triangle between Sophie’s benefactress, her husband and her long-term lover…who is also the cad Ava was sleeping with. I liked the way Sophie’s inability to forgive is contrasted with Ava’s ability to work on her flawed relationship. I liked her warm friendships with her female friends as well, and the book’s observations about art are interesting, if not particularly fresh.
But the trouble with Sophie’s revenge is that it’s a dull one. She drinks too much, she eats fine French food, she has wild sex with a couple of twenty-year-olds, she finally re-devotes herself to her art (without actually producing an original piece of her own) and settles for a conventional romance. It’s a boring, navel-gazing wallow made creepy because of how and why she ends up with her guy.
Then there’s how the book treats Sophie’s flirtation with bisexuality, which is retrograde and dull and belongs in one of those gauzy Zalman King movies where the heroine makes out with another woman but is always available for the hero. The French folks in this novel are the kind of French people who always show up in novels by expats who admire their social and sexual fearlessness, want to try them on like a pair of shiny Louboutins, and then return them. Thus, Sophie can have orgasms while fingering another woman but won’t dare label herself queer after it’s over or do it again; she kissed a girl but she didn’t like it. And the two young French people she fucks in this novel are never jealous or annoyed because – nihilism. They’re French and free man, but even they end up weighed down by conventionality. Don’t get me started on one of Sophie’s friends fixing a plot point by coming out of the closet via confessing a years-long crush on her, only to have them both shrug it off, laugh about it, and have this friend hook up with an extremely minor character, as if the situation wouldn’t be foundation shaking.
The Unbreakables is a story about characters that ought to have imagination and wit but are bankrupt of both. What starts out as a promised feast for the soul only feeds the heroine’s shallow perception of herself, and that’s the greatest tragedy of all.