Finding exactly the right title for a novel can be a tricky business, but Tamar Cohen’s début The Mistress’s Revenge is pithily perfect. Sally, the scorned mistress of the title, who has just been dumped by Clive, her married lover of five years, narrates the novel. She is also married, with children, and their respective families are friends.
As time goes on, Sally’s behaviour, which she details in a journal addressed to Clive, becomes more and more unhinged—from incessant emails to stalking his family. As Sally becomes increasingly estranged from her own family, disaster looms ever closer until the clever final twist.
For Cohen, a freelance journalist, the idea for The Mistress’s Revenge was sparked when she observed friends going through traumatic break-ups: “When you see rational, sensible women behaving completely irrationally it kind of makes you think—that’s good fodder,” she says.
When Cohen started to write the novel, mistresses were all over the newspapers; most notably Tiger Woods and his various dalliances, but also a woman who rented a billboard in Times Square to ‘out’ her married lover. “It seemed like suddenly there were a lot of stories about mistresses not slinking away and being ashamed like they are supposed to be, while the couple put on a nice united front. They were actually standing up and fighting back—I thought that was quite interesting.”
Sally’s actions may be extreme, but, as the Doubleday strapline summarises neatly; who doesn’t know a normal, perfectly sane woman who went a little crazy when her heart was broken? Perhaps slightly worryingly for men, most women will understand where Sally is coming from. As Cohen says, “despite the fact that she’s so insane and unhinged, you can identify a bit with her because you know where those feelings are coming from, even though not many people act on them to the extent she does. “In the end it’s about someone being rejected in their relationship. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an adulterous relationship or not, it’s just about a rejection and the inability to cope with the withdrawal of love.”
Cohen was born in Nigeria where her father, an anthropologist, was doing fieldwork. After an American Studies degree at Manchester University and a spell teaching English in Spain, Cohen took a job as a secretary for Marketing Week magazine with a view to becoming a journalist, something she had always wanted to do “but never thought I could”.
She spent six months at the trade magazine “breaking down the mystique about journalism,” as she puts it, before starting to pitch features ideas to NatMags—”my absolute holy grail”—home to magazines including Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping.
Women’s glossy Company commissioned her very first piece in 1988, and on the back of that she gave in her notice to go freelance. Ever since, she has covered general features including celebrity interviews, relationship features, and at one point she was the Agony Aunt for New Woman magazine.
Although The Mistress’s Revenge is her first novel, Cohen has also written commissioned non-fiction titles under the name of Tammy Cohen, which she describes as both an extension of her freelance journalism, and also “a discipline more than anything, writing to order on deadline—you know you have to come out with 75,000 words.”
The titles were predominantly true crime—Killer Couples, Deadly Divorces—and eight of these titles were published by John Blake, for whom she is full of praise: “[John] completely saved my life. Whenever I was going through a fallow period, he really saved my bacon. He’s brilliant at what he does, nobody else does it, nobody else has his nerve.”
This discipline came in useful when she met her agents Felicity Blunt and Viv Schuster at Curtis Brown. Having seen only the first 10-15,000 words of The Mistress’s Revenge, they asked how long it was likely to take her to finish it. “I was trying to gauge what they thought was an appropriate response, so I said, ‘um, three months?’ And they said, ‘three months! We thought you were going to say a year!’”
With titles such as Deadly Divorces to her name, Cohen was amused to be quizzed by the US publishers (S&S) of The Mistress’s Revenge on a recent visit to New York: “One of the questions they were asking was, ‘you’ve done all this stuff about twisted relationships; have you got a real interest in relationships that are dysfunctional?’” She laughs, “No more than the next person. I think that everyone is interested in dysfunctional relationships, aren’t they?”
Tamar Cohen's The Mistress' Revenge is out now, published by Doubleday.