As a child, Sylvia idolizes her beautiful, poised mother, who presents precisely the perfect image to the world – a stereotypically ideal wife and mother. But inside, Sylvia’s mother is anything but, as she’s been carrying on an adulterous affair and involving her children for years. As an adult, Sylvia has a husband and family of her own. She’s grown frustrated with her life and family, trapped in a seeming prison of her own making, until she meets Tai, the father of one of her art students. She’s irresistibly drawn to him. Can she avoid repeating her mother’s mistakes?
This book is told through two different time periods, both through Sylvia’s eyes; her childhood while she watches her mother slowly unravel her family’s life, and her adulthood where she is finally tempted by a man who isn’t her husband. This was an effective technique for telling the story, as each timeline has its own secrets that aren’t revealed until later in the novel. Both the narrative voices are (obviously) similar but never presented any problems in differentiating themselves to me.
What Sylvia slowly begins to realize is that her adult life has begun to parallel her mother’s, although it takes her a lot longer than it does for the reader. She hasn’t defined herself quite enough for her tastes. She’s an art teacher, but she feels as though she’s lost her own art. Her husband has buried himself in their new house, a project that’s been ongoing for years. Her younger child still needs her, but her older daughter is starting to grow apart from her, and her responsibilities are overwhelming her. She’s not sure where she is in her life, and in steps Tai, a chance to define herself apart from her family, a man who wants to give her attention just as she is. Even as she does that, she’s still not defining herself, merely repeating her mother’s footsteps.
In this sense, the novel is really about the quest of a woman reaching middle age to create her own identity. As readers we can see precisely why she is captivated by Tai, although he remains a more mysterious character. She needs to feel loved again, just for who she is without any of the trappings of her ordinary life.
The novel also carefully explores the damage that infidelity can wreak on a marriage and family, the slow but inexorable ways that couples who love one another deeply are led into adultery, and the difficulties of trying to keep together a marriage despite those faults. Would you stay with someone who had cheated so on you? Even Tai’s son is a victim, though neither Sylvia nor Tai appear to consider those consequences until it’s too late.
This thoughtful novel is an excellent choice for anyone who enjoys fiction about the inner workings of women’s lives and the difficulties wrought on relationships by infidelity. Outside the Ordinary World is a read that will linger in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.
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