By Megan Clark
Kensington Books 2008
In his short novel “Wahlverwandtschaften” (Elective affinities), Goethe conducted an almost chemical experiment, exposing the established bond of Charlotte and Eduard to the affinities of new arrivals Otto and Ottilie. The four people rearrange to form two new couples, but it all remains quite platonic and then ends in tragedy.
In her 21st century update on the subject, US author and former exotic dancer Megan Clark explores the area where Goethe didn’t dare to venture. She investigates the chemical rearrangement reaction (her version could even be described as a redox reaction, as a lot of fiery oxidation potential is transferred from one participant to another) in full carnal detail. As in chemistry, stability and reactivity are mutually exclusive but can be traded. One of her characters (but not the woman in the initially stable couple) is called Charlotte, too, but that was the only nod to the old master that I spotted.
The book makes good on the promise on the cover (“an erotic novel”), but it becomes clear that the eros serves to illustrate the issues of liberty and commitment and is neither the main issue nor the driving force. As in Goethe’s novel, the structure and the momentum of the story is provided by the chemical rearrangement between the four characters.
Clark records this experiment with verve and a fast pace. What lets her down is the lack of words in the English language to describe erotic experiences, due to the long established taboos surrounding this area. Where Spanish has hundreds of words, English writers can use about 5. I think they should be more audacious in making up new ones. Go on, don’t be shy! Also, there should be awards for erotic novels in English, like the “sonrisa vertical” award in Spain. So far, there is only a negative award for bad writing on this matter, which I believe is in itself very revealing.