The best books about ill-advised relationships

Joanna Briscoe Author Of The Seduction: An Addictive New Story of Desire and Obsession from the Bestselling Author of Sleep with Me
By Joanna Briscoe

Who am I?

I have written seven novels, and each time, I seem drawn to some aspect of illicit or transgressive human behaviour. I find it fascinating to see what goes on beneath the surface – the tiny clues that emerge, the betrayals of others and ourselves. I bought a copy of Lolita from my local bookshop when I was a teenager, and, deeply disturbing though that novel is, I think its themes and prose influenced me, as they have so many authors. In our imperfect lives, there’s also a sense of Schadenfreude to be had as a reader when we read about other people’s terrible mistakes.

I wrote...

The Seduction: An Addictive New Story of Desire and Obsession from the Bestselling Author of Sleep with Me

By Joanna Briscoe,

Book cover of The Seduction: An Addictive New Story of Desire and Obsession from the Bestselling Author of Sleep with Me

What is my book about?

Beth is relatively happily married, with one daughter and one stepson. She lives beside a shadowy stretch of canal by Camden Lock in London. Troubled by her past and the mother who rejected her, she starts to see a therapist, Dr. Tamara Bywater. Dr. Bywater – soothing, skilled, quietly charismatic – appears to help her, but gradually and unexpectedly she starts insinuating herself into Beth’s mind – and into her life. She is not what she seems at all. 

The books I picked & why

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The Lover

By Marguerite Duras, Barbara Bray (translator),

Book cover of The Lover

Why this book?

This classic of illicit passion is so beautifully written, so mesmeric in its poetic prose and recreation of a long-gone world, it blew my mind when I first read it and changed my ideas about the possibilities of writing. The young Duras meets a Chinese man on a ferry crossing the Mekong at the start of this autobiographical novel. Their differences in age, wealth, class, race, and expectations, all play out, and it’s a novel as much about exploitation as sexual desire. It’s multi-layered, experimental, but has a real narrative tug. I love it!


By A.S. Byatt,

Book cover of Possession

Why this book?

I loved this novel from the moment I entered its first pages, with its intriguing discovery in a library, and it was a very worthy Booker winner. As two academics uncover more about the lives of the Victorian poets they specialise in, the details of an adulterous relationship from the past slowly emerge, revealed with delicious literary clues and evasions. The male poet is married, while the woman has a female companion. All sorts of devastation ensues. The present starts to echo the past... The cleverness and beauty of this novel are such that it’s a favourite re-read.

Other People's Clothes

By Calla Henkel,

Book cover of Other People's Clothes

Why this book?

On a very different note, this recent novel about unwise behaviour amused me. It’s well-written, sparky, and I enjoyed it a lot more than Who Killed Maud Dixon?, which covers similar territory. None of the relationships here are really to be envied. I enjoy reading novels by younger women with a very different take on the world, and this one keeps the reader guessing.

The End of the Affair

By Graham Greene,

Book cover of The End of the Affair

Why this book?

A dark, brooding novel of betrayal, in my memory, it’s all set in shadows – dark streets and badly lit rooms. One man has an affair with another man’s wife, ultimately causing grief for all. The south London setting is so well done, as is the evocation of wartime austerity and infidelity. To me, this is a novel that is largely about atmosphere. Once read, it haunts you forever.

Notes on a Scandal

By Zoe Heller,

Book cover of Notes on a Scandal

Why this book?

A real classic, leaving Heller fans in frustration, longing for her to match this achievement. The rank stupidity of the teacher, Sheba’s, affair with a perfectly mundane male pupil – while she has a marriage and childrenis perversely enjoyable. But it’s the older female narrator’s warped obsession with Sheba, her desire to control her, to possess her life, that forms the really fascinating and highly ill-advised relationship. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

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