If the title of this book gives you pause, then the introduction by Philip Roth will probably do so too. (I will say that the title of the novel is ironic in a lot of ways, demonstrating the ways in a man is only able to see consequences of his actions through the impact on other men — which is tied to the ways in which he could understand them if he were to face the same impact). This novel was published in 1973, and the primary story takes place a few years earlier. The protagonist is a well-regarded physiologist at Harvard who has decided that he’s unhappy in his marriage, taken with a undergrad, and decides to pursue an affair both because of his initial unhappiness and what he thinks is the possibility of falling in love. He takes his job seriously, which generally looks like a love of science and biology, but also of Latin and language, and this connection between the words he’s able to use to discuss something like the human body, human existence etc, carries a lot of weight with him. He’s also very taken with the life and status his position as a professor at Harvard allows him. This is the first half of the novel. The turn comes when he returns home from awayness and confronts the reality of the pain he’s caused and the divorce that’s coming, what it means for him, his future ex-wife, and his children.
In a lot of ways this is both a typical and prototypical marriage and divorce novel. It’s published about a decade after Rabbit, Run (hardly the first young man runs off novel — and of course we can look at Edith Wharton and Tolstoy for much earlier stories about divorce). It’s a novel in which a man’s decision to leave his family is treated seriously, but not necessarily sympathetically, and the will, the self-delusion, and the desire to live a “free” life are not the powerful forces they are in other novels. This is NOT The Moon and Sixpence. Instead, there’s an honest emotional reckoning with the choices made. It’s not a redemption story and it’s not a story in which a lot of lessons are learned. Instead, it’s a novel in which consequences are recognized and seen. Sometimes learning that you are not 100% the person you thought you were is a powerful consequence to choices, and irrevocable choices are not always disaster, but they still cost you something.