We Do What We Do in the Dark, a bit reminiscent of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, is a coming-of-age story where the main focus is on a lesbian love affair.
Mallory is in her first year of college when she falls hard for one of the professors at her university, who is almost twice her age. We never learn the professor’s name – she’s referred to as the woman throughout – but her brilliance and aloofness excite Mallory. Mallory has never been in a lesbian relationship before. While in school, she has been harboring a crush on her best friend, who is straight. When they hit puberty, and the best friend started dating boys, their friendship petered out. This unrequited love devastated Mallory, and as a result, she has never been able to fully embrace her queer identity. Yet when Mallory meets the woman, she decides to pursue her. Mallory doesn’t care that the woman has a husband or that their relationship is unlikely to have a future. In fact, she doesn’t want to ponder what their relationship would mean or anything like that. Mallory simply craves to be seen by the woman, seeking some form of validation of her being.
I haven’t read a whole lot of queer novels, but We Do What We Do in the Dark resonated with me. There is a sense of loneliness, which translates to vulnerability in Mallory. Around six months before meeting the woman, Mallory loses her mother, who battled a terminal illness. There’s a hole in her heart, which Mallory fills with her infatuation with the woman. The way Mallory holds on to every single word uttered by the woman saddened me – it was like witnessing puppy love. Throughout their clandestine affair, it is clear that the woman means a lot more to Mallory than Mallory means for her. Mallory is also aware of this, yet her desperation makes her hold on to whatever attention she can get from the woman unquestioningly.
Although their affair ends a few months later – there’s no official break-up, it’s more like the woman drifts apart – this relationship transforms Mallory. Even as Mallory moves on with her life and begins other relationships, this affair is something that she looks back on – it is a transitional point for her, even though she never acknowledges it out loud for fear of damaging the woman‘s reputation. I really liked how the novel concluded – its epilogue is set almost a decade after the affair, when Mallory takes her new girlfriend out on vacation, during which Mallory admits to the affair for the first time in her life. To Malloy’s girlfriend, the age difference and the power imbalance between Mallory and the woman are shocking. Although the woman was never Mallory’s professor, the girlfriend views the woman‘s relationship with Mallory as predatory. Mallory, however, continues to perceive the affair in a positive light – to her, it was an education, in a she-won’t-be-who-she-is-today-if-not-for-her-past kind of way. These differing viewpoints made the novel compelling, even though it left me with more complex questions than answers.
We Do What We Do in the Dark is a well-written novel about desire and self-discovery. It also explores how our take on morality changes with time – in this case, professor/student romantic entanglements – and I admired the story for it. 3.5 stars.
Note: Many thanks to Riverhead Books for sending me a review copy of We Do What We Do in the Dark.