Through its depiction of a marriage on the brink of collapse and destruction, Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers proves that sometimes the things that threaten to break a marriage apart, can also in the end show us what truly matters and what love is really about.
The novel begins on a bitter-sweet note. As a young couple Conrad and Eleanor face an unexpected pregnancy and are divided on what to do about it. Practical and career-oriented Eleanor wants an abortion. A baby is not in her plans and will only slow down her professional goals. Conrad wants the baby, to marry Eleanor and to be a family. In the end, they come to a reluctant agreement to marry, keep the baby and simultaneously move forward in each of their own fields in science.
Years later, their lives and their marriage are at the edge of a precipice. Eleanor has two affairs under her belt, the most recent one under Conrad’s nose, and feels no respect for her husband and his seeming disinterest in professional ambition. He prefers to be a “house-husband” of sorts, taking care of the house and their five children, while showing an apparent lack of interest in his career.
Eleanor is his total opposite. One of the best in her field as an expert in stem-cell research, she works late hours and more often than not prioritizes her work over her family. When Conrad fails to confront her about an affair she’s having with one of her colleagues, in spite of her making no attempt to hide it, her respect for him diminishes because of what she regards as his lack of character.
Conrad has resentments of his own. Eleanor’s complete disinterest in her home and her children, placing her job above her family, and her not understanding that for him work is not the most important thing. But his worst grievance towards his wife is his recent knowledge of their daughter Cara’s parentage, which may be the last straw of the many things Conrad has passively put up with from his wife.
All this contempt ceases to be important when Conrad fails to come home from a conference in Munich. At first, certain that he is doing this out of spite, Eleanor refuses to worry too much. However, as the days go by with no sign of Conrad, she becomes increasingly desperate and discovers that her husband is more important to her than she ever imagined. However, she also becomes a subject of suspicion among two of her children who know about her affairs and start to suspect that she may have a hand in Conrad’s disappearance.
But she doesn’t. Eleanor has not murdered Conrad and hidden his body in the backyard. He is on the run from a disturbed animal rights activist who has repeatedly been stalking him due to his work with animal experiments. Conrad had no choice but to flee Munich when he sees the woman outside his hotel. At the same time his escape becomes a search for something meaningful and ultimately serves to make him decide whether he wants to be with Eleanor or if he even loves her anymore.
Rogers skillfully presents two characters that are not only deeply flawed but also seemingly incompatible. In a series of flashbacks and alternating POVs between Conrad and Eleanor, we witness both the small and life-altering issues that caused their marriage to fail. It becomes obvious that it has been an elaborate work of miscommunication, understanding, betrayal, lies, and lack of trust that now threatens to destroy them.
Jane Rogers with Conrad and Eleanor presents an almost cautionary tale. A reminder that there is only so much a marriage or any relationship can take before it cracks, imploding eventually as a consequence and casualty of complete abandonment.