top of page

Daphne Merkin

Five Best: On Desire Selected by Daphne Merkin

What Endless Love

By Scott Spencer (1979)

1. Before Scott Spencer’s novel was made into not one but two cheesy movies, it began life as a remarkable, sexually explicit novel about youthful desire. David Axelrod, the book’s narrator, recounts the story of his wild if doomed passion for 16-year-old Jade Butterfield and his love for her unconventional family. Disaster follows when Jade’s father dictates that the young couple take a 30-day vacation from the affair—an order to which David responds by setting the Butterfields’ house on fire, driven by the belief that by putting out the fire and saving the Butterfields, he’ll be viewed as a hero. He is, to the contrary, committed to a mental institution. Years later, he’ll have a vision—a scene set in an empty theater in the middle of the night: “And now for this last time, Jade, I don’t mind, or even ask if it’s madness: I see your face, I see you, you; I see you in every seat.”

The Lover

By Marguerite Duras (1984)

2. An autobiographical tale that begins in 1929, “The Lover” tells the story of a brief affair between an impoverished 15-year-old French girl living in colonial Saigon and a much older Chinese-Vietnamese financier. The girl is spellbound by her lover’s car and by the elegance of his clothes as well as his “English cigarettes.” Although she looks barely older than a child with her thin, undersize body, the man is clearly infatuated with her. She quickly recognizes her power: “From the first moment she knows more or less, knows he’s at her mercy.” She knows, as well, the intense pleasure she derives from this sexual union. It is an affair carried on in the face of social pressures—there are the matters of race and class to consider. All this is reflected in spare and eloquent prose, as Marguerite Duras looks back at her younger self and a wholly different world.

Nothing Natural

By Jenny Diski (1986)

3. Set in London in the early 1980s, “Nothing Natural” concerns a divorced mother in her 30s caught up in a sustained erotic entanglement with a man who subjects her to sadistic sexual treatment. Though she’s excited by the relationship, she’s also confused by the unexpectedness of her taste for degradation and pain. After decades of the women’s movement, she muses, “a woman in her thirties . . . was not supposed to admit to rape fantasies and submit herself to the power play of perverted male sexuality, let alone like it.” To read “Nothing Natural,” an early and mostly forgotten Jenny Diski novel, is to contend with the unavoidable sense that this is autobiography—a fact, surprisingly, that renders the book all the more compelling.


By Jill Robinson (1974)

4. Here’s a memoir disarming in its hopefulness that love can endure in the face of impossible obstacles. Its author, the daughter of the filmmaker Dore Schary, grew up in Los Angeles—which may have nurtured the sophisticated, slightly world-weary perspective on romance in evidence here. Jill, a twice-divorced mother of two young children, is a freelance magazine writer and hosts a call-in radio show; she is also addicted to speed. Lawrence is a brilliant mathematician and a thrice-married alcoholic. The couple’s sex life is tender and attentive: “He touched me everywhere at first as if he were making a preliminary sketch to be filled in later in bolder strokes.” Their decision to get married despite their joint cynicism about the institution produces chaos: Jill’s fierce insecurity has her imagining that he covets other women. Lawrence has also now developed a habit of bouncing checks. She tries escaping to the East Coast but he follows her. Their lives seem bent on behavior inimical to all hope of a life together, until there comes a moment of recognition: that their wish to hold on to each other supersedes all their doubts and destructive psychodramas. A complex love story and, even for the jaded, an affecting one in its hopefulness.


By Edith Templeton (1966)

5. Desire comes in all flavors; some variations of it are, as W.H. Auden put it, “crooked as corkscrews.” Edith Templeton’s novel was deemed sufficiently transgressive that it was banned when it was first published under a pseudonym in 1966. In 2003 it was republished under the author’s real name. The novel is set in 1946, in a postwar London filled with newly independent women who hold jobs and whose lives are no longer limited to sitting home and changing diapers. Twenty-eight-year-old Louisa, separated from her husband, meets Gordon, a psychiatrist, a man she’s strangely drawn to thanks to his icy manner. She soon finds herself submitting to his violent sexuality, with a sensual pleasure she has never known before. Nor has she ever experienced the insistent psychological probing to which she’s forced to submit. Templeton writes with great intelligence—her dialogue sparkles—about enduring questions, among them the one this novel asks, namely, what accounts for the willingness of women to be bent to a man’s will?


bottom of page