Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
A Spy in the House of Love is the fourth installment in Nin’s “continuous novel” titled Cities of the Interior. The latter unites six shorter individual works and focuses on three women—Djuna, Lillian, and Sabina—and the men in their lives. The novels are not necessarily sequential but are connected by a network of characters, settings, imagery, and language. Thus, they do not need to be read in any particular order and, though certain information and echoes may be missed, each volume stands as a complete work independent of the others.
A Spy in the House of Love focuses on Sabina, a fiery actress who is only partially content in her marriage to an attentive but dull husband, Alan, and yearns for erotic and spiritual stimulation. While performing in an amateurish production of Cinderella in Provincetown, on Massachusetts’s Cape Cod, she is seduced by a romantically visualized Austrian singer named Philip. At a jazz club in New York, she indulges in an affair with Mambo, an exotic and sensuous drummer. In a Long Island beach town, a grounded British pilot named John captivates her imagination with his dark, angry intensity. She becomes a nurturing mother figure for Donald, a lively young jester. She also encounters Jay, a perceptive artist and her former lover in Paris. During and between these “multiple peregrinations of love,” she returns to the comfort of her marital home and Alan’s trusting paternal love.
A controlling image for the novel is taken from Marcel Duchamp’s Dadaist painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), which presents a fractured image of a woman’s multiple outlines. Nin’s portrait of Sabina is equally fractured, for each of the selves that she becomes or discovers with her different lovers is a valid though incomplete expression of her identity. As an actress skilled with vocal,...
(The entire section is 776 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
A psychological novel, sometimes regarded as a novella because the narrative has a narrow scope and lacks structural complexity, A Spy in the House of Love centers on the encounters of Sabina, a woman whose three quests are for love, vocation, and self-knowledge. In a series of brief, generally unsatisfactory sexual flings, she seeks passion but not commitment. To one of her lovers she appears to be “Dona Juana,” yet she perceives herself as, at best, only a fragile counterpart to the Don Juan stereotype of a compulsive womanizer. Such a man’s erotic interest in the woman ends with her conquest, but Sabina lacks the male’s single-minded purposefulness. She is at best a timid pursuer of men, one tormented by guilt and anguished by her failure to experience fulfillment through passion.
On one level, the plot line of Nin’s novel documents female failure, at least for a woman constituted as sensitively as Sabina, to achieve the same kind of casual sexual satisfaction that some males appear to enjoy without guilt. In her doomed quest, Sabina betrays her complaisant husband, Alan, whose nature is forgiving but who generally ignores her deepest needs for assertion. In Philip, an opera singer, she enjoys a brief sexual encounter that is heightened by her lover’s appreciation of music and of nature. Her next sexual encounter is with a former airplane pilot, John, who treats her with erotic delicacy but soon vanishes from her life. Jay (who resembles Nin’s longtime friend Henry Miller), a Brooklyn-born artist, had once been her lover but now serves as her confidant, confessor, and critic. Mambo, a black musician, longs for Sabina but...
(The entire section is 679 words.)