Happily married, great career, mother of two. What more could a woman possibly want? Enter The Change Room, by award-winning writer Karen Connelly, and find out.
Eliza Keenan is the mother of two young sons, the owner of a flower studio that caters to the city's elite, and the loving wife of a deliciously rumpled math professor named Andrew. She's on the move from dawn until her boys are in bed, and after they're asleep she cleans her house. Her one complaint about her life is that the only time she has for herself is her twice-weekly swim in the local community centre pool, where sunlight shines in through a tall window and lights up the water in a way that reminds her of the year she spent as a footloose youth on an island in Greece. Then one morning into this life that is full of satisfactions of all kinds except sexual (because who has the time or the energy once the kids are asleep?) comes a tall, dark and lovely stranger, a young woman Eliza encounters at the pool and nicknames 'the Amazon.' The sight of this woman, naked in the change room, completely undoes Eliza, and soon the two of them are entangled in an affair that breaks all the rules, and threatens to capsize not only Eliza and her happy family, but her lover's world, too. And yet the sex is so all-encompassing, so intimate, so true...how can it be bad?
Be ready to be shaken up, woken up, scandalized and deeply stirred.
About the author
Karen Connelly is the author of nine books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Her first book, a collection of poems called The Small Words in my Body was published 22 years ago. It won the Pat Lowther Award. Her poetry has been translated into French, Spanish, Russian, and Burmese. She is also the author of several acclaimed books of prose, including The Lizard Cage, winner of the Orange Broadband New Writers Prize, Touch the Dragon, winner of the Governor General’s Award, and Burmese Lessons, a love story, shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and the BC National Award for Nonfiction. Her journalism, essays and poetry have been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, Toronto Star, The Walrus, The New Humanist (Britain), National Geographic Traveller, Shambhala Sun, and dozens of literary magazines and periodicals in Canada, the U.S., Britain, and Asia.Her books are explorations of the countries where she has lived and travelled: Burma, Thailand, Spain, France, Greece, and, of course, Canada. In all three genres, she has increasingly assumed the role of writer as political witness. She has long been a supporter and an occasional board member of PEN Canada and has been active in various campaigns on behalf of writers in prison or living under persecution. She makes her home in Toronto with her family.
- Short-listed, Bisexual Book Award - Fiction
Excerpt: The Change Room (by (author) Karen Connelly)
Sometimes she felt desperate for it.
After she dropped the boys off, she hurried along the icy street, afraid of slipping. A few other parents, late getting their kids to school, waved in her direction. They were also in a rush, no one could stop and chat. Thank god. I have forty-five minutes, she thought, and picked up her pace.
The intensity of her own need was unfamiliar. Not need. She didn’t need anything. That was for children. And Andrew. She wanted. It’s desire, she thought. One foot skated forward unexpectedly on the ice; her arm shot out as she caught herself. Resettling her heavy bag on her shoulder, she felt a twinge there, the old ache. Torn ligaments, years ago in Greece. One serious surgery when she returned. The sidewalks were treacherous, the roads worse. Accidents were already happening today, across the city, on the highways. She’d asked Andrew to leave the car at home, but he said, Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.
She had not thought of that word for a thousand years. Desire. Who had the time for it? De sideris. She’d taken two years of Latin at university, four of ancient Greek, the brilliant, useless languages. Dead, like the stars. “Desire” came from the Latin root de sideris. Meaning of the stars.
She had started to swim a year ago, when the boys were five and six, and she was in the floral studio again every day, working long hours. Her work was complicated, busy, mostly satisfying. She would never tire of flowers, though the people who bought them sometimes drove her crazy. Clients came to the studio as though to a therapist’s office, upset about their daughter’s choice of husband, worried about aging, or anxious about money, and good style. Human weirdness was part of the boutique flower gig. Her business partner, Kiki, often said that because flowers came from the natural world, they brought out the animal in people. Eliza loved the flowers first and foremost, but she also loved the crazed tap-dance of running a business that sold something as ephemeral and as unnecessary as flowers. Beauty, that’s what she sold, beauty’s ancient promises, too—this is true, this will be good—especially from May to October, when she and various wedding planners worked together to create lovely, personal, idyllic, glorious, increasingly lavish weddings. Approaching the city’s three top wedding planners had been her idea, and an excellent one. The clients who came through them were the wealthiest people she had ever met in her life. They could afford truth and beauty.
Eliza worked hard to give it to them, every day. Though she relished hard work, the pace had grown relentless since she’d had kids. The list of things to do constantly replenished itself. One after the other, she shot down the tasks, yet still they rose up and came at her (like zombies, naturally; her boys loved zombies). If it wasn’t the main sink clogging at the studio, it was the flooding basement at home, or a sick child, or a bossy client. In the past couple of months, it had been Kiki, in a romantic funk, whining about her loneliness and threatening, vaguely, to return to Montreal to find a real man. Wanting to be one of the “good” mothers, Eliza had even volunteered for school council. Now some disorganized flake of a woman called her every week, begging her to do yet another school-related task. Andrew never seemed to work himself into the same frenzied pitch. Was it because he was attached to an institution? Was it because he was a man, and didn’t know how to wash the floor?
She felt alone in her exhaustion, but she knew that she was not alone. She was one of millions of women working their brains out and their asses off. She had no right to complain, sitting as she was at the top of the pyramid: white skin, warm house, healthy kids, a loving husband. Some days, usually on the weekends when she read the newspapers, she felt her luck swell and stick in her throat. She swallowed it down with clean water, queasy, stomach churning, her eyes open, eating up the articles, the reports, the photographs in the world section. People stood at the flooded, burning heart of the world, howling kids in their arms, or dead on the ground. Bombs fell, the plague spread, the refugees fled, and fled, and fled. And always, always, there were women trapped somewhere, in rape camps, raped lives.
Eliza was free. She said it out loud sometimes, in the midst of whining about all she had to do. This is freedom! Two times a year, she got melodramatically sick; her body knew that only illness would bring real rest. Last year, sitting on the examining table, she’d said to the doctor, “It’s just my cold, finally breaking up.” The doctor had lifted her eyes from her cool stethoscope on Eliza’s hot chest, and responded, “Actually, it’s just your pneumonia, settling in.” Even while the kids were babies and toddlers, she had worked; maternity leave did not exist for the self-employed. Years passed, as they do, with at least one breast and half her mind attached to her babies. Now Marcus and Jake were big boys going to school. She still felt the elastic delight of being out of the house full-time.Thumping their hips, her friends would say, The baby weight is disappearing. My body’s coming back. A lie. It never came back, the body before children, the old life. She knew the truth: love cleaves you right through the middle. She would never be closed again. Never again, singular. She was divided in three by husband and sons. No, she was divided in four, because of the house, an old Victorian four-storey, always clamouring for attention. They had renovated it slowly, room by money-sucking room. The house belonged to both of them, but she was the one who took care of it like the housekeeper out of an old English novel, right down to the keys, the platters, the good cutlery, the power tools, pliers and paint cans. To say nothing about keeping the place clean.
Which reminded her of that shelf in the fridge, covered in some sticky, gelatinous substance. She shook her head and stepped over a gleaming artery of ice. This was it, this gift of an hour on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, she must not think about the fridge. The water whispered: you are not as divided as you feel. Her skin was still complete, despite the cuts, broken glassware at work, a slip of a new pruning knife, her heel punctured by that nail during the flood cleanup in the basement last spring, even the way she tore—twice—with the births. The wounds closed. She floated.Someone was out on the sidewalk breaking up the terrible ice in front of St. Anne’s Community Centre, referred to by those in the know as Annie’s. She liked the name; St. Anne was the patron saint of families. It was a solid place, built in the sixties, nothing fancy, no big glass window or state-of-the-art equipment, just a squat two-storey building at the edge of the park, operated by well-organized people who took good care of children. When the boys had been little, the daycare had saved her life.
She pushed through the first door, then the next. Tina at the front desk stamped her pass with a wink—she was busy on the phone. Eliza hardly slackened her pace down the hallway as she detoured around the mother who was down on her knees in front of her crying two-year-old. The change room door was yellow; she went through it into the warm, chlorinated air, and immediately felt better. Echoing voices drifted in from the pool, the lifeguards talking loudly across the water. And water falling: someone was taking a shower. Maybe it was Sheila, her neighbour. Just as she looked toward the shower area, her good friend Janet came out from behind the tiled wall, and said, “Hi there! I was wondering if you were going to make it today.” Janet had a towel around her voluptuous body—she claimed that her breasts simply never stopped growing—and another wrapping up her curly dark-brown hair.
Eliza hung her coat and bag on a hook. “It’s always a panic in the morning, but I will not give up my swimming! How are you?”
“Sophie is driving me bonkers, otherwise I’m fine.”
Eliza made sympathetic noises as she pulled her sweater over her head. Sophie was Janet’s increasingly argumentative teenage daughter. Another regular swimmer came from the showers into the change room, smiling nearsightedly. Annoying woman, with a perpetually sore neck. She always talked about her son in Vancouver, how much money he was making, tearing down old houses, ripping around the city in his fancy car. Who cares, Janet would say after the woman had left. Who cares about a damn Porsche?
Eliza was in her bathing suit already, keen to get in the water; it was only a half an hour before the toddler swim classes would arrive from the daycare. Sheila was in the shower room, a petite woman with what Eliza’s mother would call “a lovely figure”—and the only mother who swam in her bikini, which added to the impression that she was about twenty-five. But she was older than Eliza. The women greeted each other; Eliza glanced surreptitiously at the hourglass curve of Sheila’s waist. The deep brown skin was almost unlined. Sheila said, “Watch out, the showers are cold again today.”
Eliza stepped into the cool spray. “Brr!” She showered quickly and called out her goodbyes, then slipped through the last door.
Beyond the pool, the long eastern wall was painted in cartoon style with bright tropical fish, a diver, a red-haired mermaid peeking through seaweed. Above the mural, graffiti letters bulged: St. Anne’s Is a Good Place to Be. Only one other swimmer was in the water, finishing a length at a fast clip. Eliza was pleased that she wouldn’t have to vie for a clear lane.
She sat down and licked the insides of her goggles, embarrassed by her tongue sliding over the plastic lenses; saliva kept them from fogging up. The bored young lifeguards seemed always to catch her doing this; today was no exception. She waved at the one sitting across the pool in his raised chair and fit the goggles over her eyes. Blue lenses made the water bluer. She lifted her whole weight up with her arms and dropped herself straight off the edge of the pool.
“Karen Connelly’s latest, The Change Room, is drawing big praise for its depiction of a married woman’s surprising, transformative affair. Reviews and fans affirm that the novel meets every one of my Perfect Summer Read criteria: urban, witty, funny, sexy, humane and no doubt as elegantly written as Connelly’s past works. We tend to give so much attention to debut novelists, but I love watching a writer evolve, and Connelly is building a beautiful body of work.” —Katrina Onstad, author of Everybody Has Everything and The Weekend Effect (A Writers’ Trust of Canada 2017 Summer Reading pick)
“Sexy CanLit . . . Karen Connelly’s new novel is exactly that—and as steamy as the shower scene that gets things going.” —Sarah Murdoch, Toronto Star
“The Change Room opens up definitions and breaks boundaries, depicting ordinary lives that turn utterly erotic. . . . [A] warm, refreshing swim on a frigid day. . . . It’s hard to write sex that isn’t too pornographic, awkward or scientific-sounding. . . . Connelly’s sex writing is detailed and frank, never embarrassing and designed, like her description of a cake’s flavour, to give pleasure. In the end many forms of sweetness run together: wine, flirtation, intimacy, friendship, nourishment, excitement, satisfaction, music, poetry.” —Liz Harmer, The Globe and Mail
“In The Change Room, Connelly is at her provocative best.” —Dave Williamson, Winnipeg Free Press
“I was blown away by Karen Connelly’s The Change Room. . . . [Connelly] knocks it outta the park with this one. . . . This is not a guy’s version of sex and this is not a Harlequin version of sex. This is real. Interspersed with doing the dishes. Well done, Karen Connelly.” —Shelley Macbeth, seller at Blue Heron Books, 49th Shelf
“Erotic. Truthful. Cunning. This is the juicy peach of a novel you’ve been longing to devour. Bless Karen Connelly for writing the life of a middle-aged woman with all the lusty bravura it deserves. I dare you to read The Change Room and not be simultaneously astonished and aroused.” —Ami McKay, author of The Witches of New York
“The Change Room is a book couples should take to bed and read out loud. Never embarrassing or lurid, always deeply arousing, the sex in this book is exquisitely written. But The Change Room offers the reader so much more than titillation. Connelly gives us a challenging view of marriage, a frank appraisal of the physical and mental exhaustion so many of us feel carrying the weight of domestic life, and a long overdue acknowledgement of our shared desire for respite. More than that, The Change Room directs our gaze to an ancient and fundamental truth: sex is sacred and if we forget this as a culture, or don’t appease this aspect of the divine within ourselves, our spirit, our relationships and our society suffers.” —Gail Anderson-Dargatz, author of The Spawning Grounds
“[A] sexy, stirring novel.” —49th Shelf