What was it like to be Mrs Paul Theroux? If a person’s interest in this vexed subject depends on the extent of their fascination with the author of The Mosquito Coast, then I’m riveted. In my childhood, Theroux, novelist and travel writer extraordinaire, was one of our household gods, celebrated by my father not only for his books, but also for his exploits: manly behaviour to which he inadvertently gave licence in the eyes of some of his fans. But there are, I think, other reasons to read this strange, sad book by his first wife. What is it like to be married to the brilliance in the room? Answering this question used to be the work of feminist literary historians such as Diane Johnson, whose marvellous 1972 book about the first Mrs George Meredith was republished last year. Now, though, the wives themselves can have a go at bottling pain for posterity. Even if they end up doing a bad job, there’s power in their spiky, hard-earned wisdom.
Has Anne Theroux done a bad job? She’s not a writer, and nor does she pretend to be one. Indeed, part of her problem when she was with Paul seems to have been that she was overly in thrall to his talent. Like his friend (later ex-friend) VS Naipaul, she believes that art is long and life is short, and during their marriage she hoped that her husband – the kind of guy who went fishing with Robert Lowell and Jonathan Raban – would make a mark for both of them. There’s no getting away from the fact that her memoir, based on a diary she kept in 1990, the year she and Paul separated after more than two decades together, is often inconsequential and sometimes a bit Pooter-ish. Why does mentioning her hedge clippers make her so anxious? Does she mean it to be funny when she describes William Golding’s Booker prize-winning Rites of Passage as a novel “about fellatio in the navy in the 18th century”? In context, it’s hard to tell.
It’s not his infidelity that hurts so much as the grand words that have no basis in reality
But then Paul appears and things perk up. It struck me as unfair that even on the page, he elbows her out of the way. But she also sees him very clearly: his amateur dramatics, his sentimentality, his hypocrisy. Though she cannot solve the mystery of why a man might say the most important words of all and not fully mean them – tearfully, he insists he loves her, even as he’s living with the woman he’ll marry once he’s divorced – readers will recognise both the syndrome and the terrible bewilderment it causes. For the whole of 1990 – he leaves on 18 January, at 8am – he keeps her hanging on, his letters affectionate, even passionate, and full of plans. You can hardly blame her for believing all is not lost. Beyond his bet-hedging cowardice, there’s a fervour with which her yearning heart struggles to argue, and beyond that, a coldness. As she notes, professional travellers, like some foreign correspondents and eternal expats, are frequently charming and adventurous. However, they come with a shadow side that is distant and brutal. The two go together, by necessity.
She and Theroux married in 1967, in Kampala, where they were both teaching; she was already pregnant with their son, Marcel, and Louis soon followed (Marcel is a writer; Louis makes documentaries and is now more famous than his father). It’s hard to blame Anne for the way she’s dazzled by this dashing American, with his big, rambunctious family and (later) his house on Cape Cod. For all that she has her own career – back in London, she becomes a radio producer at the BBC – she’s also, thanks to her age and upbringing, prey to a disabling internalised sexism. “I was a pain in the arse,” she writes of the fact that she expected Paul to get her lunch when she came home with her new baby (not that he did – he had a book to finish).
But the warning signs are also there from the beginning, when he tells her that she must give up the job she loves in a Kenyan school to be with him, mere seconds after they’ve met. He’s in love, but he also wants, needs, a handmaiden; an encourager-in-chief. When his affairs begin, his line is that the women involved are unimportant (he says this even of the mistress he will marry). But when she has an affair – he’s off on another journey; she is lonely – he goes mad, a frenzy that later inspires the scene in his semi-autobiographical novel My Secret History, in which Andre Parent, writer and super swain, fires a urine-filled water pistol at his love rival.
And so – back to 1990 – the months tick by. Anne keeps herself busy. She begins training as a relationship counsellor, interviews Kingsley Amis and Barbara Cartland for the radio, and sleeps with the odd old friend. When her sons are home from university, she spends time with them, occasionally gleaning some useful bit of Paul-related intelligence along the way. She represses her wilder feelings, though sometimes she drinks and dials and screams at Paul across the Atlantic. But slowly and surely, she comes to see both the true nature of Paul’s deceit – it’s not his infidelity that hurts so much as the grand words that have no basis in reality – and, more crucially, her foolishness in having listened to him for so long. (Feeling stupid is so usefully bracing in these situations.)
She knows, as we know, that it’s all going to be all right in the end. She will meet someone else. Her sons will thrive. She will be polite to Paul at parties. And, eventually, she will publish this book. Not revenge, exactly, but a last word of sorts: dignified and moving, for all its faults.
• The Year of the End: A Memoir of Marriage, Truth and Fiction by Anne Theroux is published by Icon (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply