Charmaine Craig elegantly wrestles with the notion of rivalry between women in “My Nemesis,” an erudite novel about a woman in love with another woman’s husband.
Tessa, a white scholar of Camus and a successful author, falls for Charlie, a stimulating philosopher in Los Angeles. Their relationship begins innocently enough in a platonic exchange of letters that Tessa shares with her husband, Milton. The two of them become regular houseguests at each others’ homes despite the fact that Tessa says something untenably rude to Charlie’s Asian wife Wah shortly after meeting her. “I’d never been able to read Wah, and I still don’t believe that it was a matter merely of culture or ethnicity. Sure, as our current ethos would have it, she was a ‘person of mixed race,’ something that might have contributed, beyond her unusual look, to the confusion of her submissive and queenlike demeanor. Though I don’t think even her relatives could have told you if her general mode of quietness was due to a timidity on her part or a righteousness that kept her at remove from other; I don’t think anyone knew if she tended to smile courteously during conversations with that supple mouth of hers because she was incapable of keeping pace with our ideas or privately counting the ways those ideas were imbecilic.”
Everything Wah does aggravates Tessa, particularly when it comes to Charlie and Wah’s adopted daughter, Htet. Now a fifteen year-old, Htet was sold by her Burmese family to Malaysian traffickers when she was very young and suffered a terrible childhood until she was rescued by a kindly nun, and was eventually adopted by Wah. It’s Wah’s selflessness and abnegation that disgusts Tessa most of all, who flirts with her husband after dinner while Wah does the dishes. As Tessa moves back and forth between her home on the East Coast and Charlie and Wah’s home in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Los Angeles, she machinates over how to maintain Charlie’s attention and unleash the power Wah has over both him and herself.
Their Craftsman house, surrounded by crumbling Victorians, becomes another point of contention, because a young homeless boy is sheltering next door. Htet and Wah are trying to help the boy, but Charlie works against them by involving the landlord and the police. Craig deftly skewers the way some white people merely puppet support of underrepresented groups while releasing themselves from all guilt and obligation. “He’ll be fine,” Charlie says of the homeless boy next door, before returning to Nietzsche. While Wah is obviously not perfect, she’s nearly a caricature of a saint compared to the Camus-quoting, husband-nabbing Tessa. Perhaps that’s why Craig returns again and again to the theme of Sisyphus, a subject Camus studied, and his horrible fate of rolling that boulder up the mountain day after day. Are women fated to find nemeses in the most ridiculous of places—other women? In addition to the animosity between Tessa and Wah, each has a conflict with her daughter, Wah with the rebellious Htet, and Tessa with her long-suffering daughter Nora. Meanwhile, the reader may well wonder, what’s so great about this guy Charlie? His rugged handsomeness and proclivity to quote Nietzsche? Craig’s literary talents cannot be denied in this thoughtful examination of rivalry between women, class differences and empathy.
By Charmaine Craig
Grove Press, 208 pages