We are what we choose to recognize, as much as we are what we choose to see,” declares Tessa, the narrator of Charmaine Craig’s My Nemesis. “Or: we are what we are capable of perceiving.”
Like everything Tessa tells us in the novel—which is written as a sort of apologia, or perhaps a confession with little to no remorse—it’s unclear whether she believes what she’s revealing. A married woman engaged in an emotional affair with a man, also married, Tessa is slippery, and that’s what makes Craig’s book so compelling.
Tessa is a memoirist who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Milton, a semiretired investment banker. After she receives a letter from Charlie, a philosophy professor in Southern California, complimenting her on an essay about Albert Camus, she finds herself flattered. Her interest only grows when she finds an online photo of the handsome Charlie. This instant attraction isn’t sexual, she insists, “but when a darkly attractive man from a similar desert of intellectual isolation comes bearing a cup of consolation, one drinks!”
Tessa is not secretive about her communications with Charlie; rather, she shares them with her husband, reasoning that “part of me thought it wise to remind Milton that others—in this case, a particularly eloquent, impassioned, and handsome man—could fall in love with, at least, my brain.” If this is a bid to spark jealousy, it doesn’t work; Milton becomes (platonically) enamored of Charlie as well, and the three soon come together in person at the couple’s farmhouse in upstate New York.
It’s the beginning of a friendship that turns complicated once Tessa and Milton meet Charlie’s wife, Wah, an Asian studies lecturer who has written a book about a Burmese girl sold to Malaysian traffickers; she and Charlie have gone on to adopt the child, whose name is Htet. Tessa is unimpressed. “I’d never been able to read Wah,” she explains, “and I still don’t believe that it was a matter merely of culture or ethnicity. True, 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 queen-like demeanor.”
The quartet remains in touch over the course of a year, but Tessa never warms up to Wah. Instead, she manages to find offense in almost everything Wah says or does, even her “smiling glances,” which “seemed to communicate her capacity to see straight through to the worst of me or to the future in which I’d already begun to ruin their lives.”
There’s envy at work here, although Tessa never quite owns up to it. She does, however, become jealous after discovering that Charlie has befriended Eleonore, her daughter from a previous marriage. Tessa and Eleonore’s relationship is cordial but uneasy—not least because Eleonore is the one character in the book (besides Wah) who has Tessa’s number. “My mother likes to be a contrarian,” she tells Charlie at one point. “But she can’t stand it when anyone else is.”
My Nemesis reveals Tessa slowly. The novel opens with her admitting that she once, during a dinner with their husbands, called Wah “an insult to womankind.” Toward the end of the book, Tessa gives a fuller account of the incident, revealing that such a slight wasn’t close to the worst thing she said. It’s the equivalent of someone confessing to shoplifting, then later admitting they committed armed robbery.
This sort of narrative technique is one that Craig uses to great effect, jumping back and forth in time, as Tessa indulges tangents and provides background information that she seems to think will be exculpatory. Early on, she mentions that Wah has died, but it’s not until much later that Tessa reveals the circumstances. These time shifts have the effect of throwing us off balance. It’s a deliberate strategy that perfectly illustrates Tessa’s motivations; she narrates the novel as if she’s pleading a case that she knows she’s likely to lose.
My Nemesis is told mostly in the first person, although it includes occasional asides to someone who isn’t identified until the novel’s end. This, too, is by design, and is intentionally destabilizing, causing us to reconsider everything we’ve read and to question Tessa’s motives even more. The conceit could come off as gimmicky, but it doesn’t; Craig’s narrative is masterful and self-assured.
Her greatest accomplishment, though, is the character of Tessa. It doesn’t take long for us to understand that she’s unreliable, consumed by resentment, yet unable to admit it. She couches her hatred of Wah—and it is hatred, even if she would never admit it—as intellectual activism, going so far as to critique the other woman’s author photo as displaying “all the features of dependency and insecurity that my feminism urges me to decry: the wide, wounded gaze; the helpless fragility.”
It’s a risk to have such a resolutely unsympathetic character as the nexus of a narrative, but Craig sketches Tessa beautifully, acknowledging her humanity but making clear her capacity for monstrous actions.
Artful in its prose and unsparing in the way it looks at envy and its corrosive effects, My Nemesis is a riveting novel about the stories people tell themselves to justify their shortcomings and what happens when they start to believe these lies. As Eleonore tells Tessa: “That’s just it, Mom. All you care about is your side. And you don’t even know the reality of who you are.”•