Book review: A Brief Affair, Alex Miller

A sympathetic account of a highly intelligent woman surviving a mid-life crisis.

A one-night stand originally referred to a theatrical or musical performance that ran for one night only. Nowadays the expression refers to an unrepeated sexual encounter; and the term has an undeserved pejorative overtone. Perhaps that is why Alex Miller titled his latest novel A Brief Affair, to avoid such connotations, but a one-night stand is pivotal to this story. 

Admittedly his is a one-night stand where everything clicks for Dr Frances Egan. It is a brief but perfect coupling: ‘They were lost in each other in a place where there was no right or wrong. She was made for this moment. There was no choice. He was right. Now she too believed this to be their fate.’

Egan is in her early 40s. She is a successful academic on the path to a professorship. But her fantastically satisfying brief affair has triggered a midlife crisis. She despises and fears most of her academic colleagues, and feels her university has lost its way. What she does about that and how the repercussions affect her devoted husband and children form a large part of the novel.

It so happens that Frances’ faculty occupies a building that was once a lunatic asylum. She comes into possession of an old diary written by former inmate, Valerie, whose life and loves captivate Frances and make for a touching love story, which beguiles not only Frances but the reader.

A Brief Affair‘s cover proclaims this novel to be ‘an exquisite story of love’s power to change us’ and perhaps that is so, but it is not how it struck me. Rather I saw it as a sympathetic account of a highly intelligent woman surviving a midlife crisis. Love of family certainly helps that survival.

Miller is an excellent storyteller. The narrative is perfectly paced and his characters are generally convincing and well-rounded. With the exception of her family, however, when people are seen through Frances’ eyes, those she likes come across as romanticised and those she dislikes – namely some of her university colleagues and superiors – while sexually obnoxious are a bit overdrawn:

‘Those people weren’t interested in educating the young. They had no interest in education. To become one of them would kill her hopes of ever achieving anything beautiful and true in her own life. To become a professor would be the sound of the key turning in the lock. Her own death rattle.’

I am not suggesting that the words Miller puts into his protagonist’s mouth reflect his own opinion, rather that Frances’ revulsion seems exaggerated.

There are many other passages in the book in which her musings are recorded, some sad, some fanciful. A particularly enjoyable one is: ‘What is great? Come on! Everything Australian is great. The Great Barrier Reef, the Great Australian Bight, the Great Ocean Road, the Great Dividing Range, the Great Sandy Desert.’

This is a charming novel and for most readers it will be insightful and heart-warming, covering both the love story of a present day woman and that of another who lived in a more difficult past and left a touching record in a diary.

Read: Book review: How Many More Women?, Jennifer Robinson and Keina Yoshida 

For me, though, it is about a person in a stressful situation and how she copes. But I will not be the first or last reader to possibly misinterpret a writer’s intentions.

A Brief Affair, Alex Miller
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
ISBN: 9781761066573

Format: Paperback
Pages: 288 pp
Publication date: 1 November 2022
RRP: $32.99

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.