Saturday, March 04, 2006

Book Review: Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman

Category: Fiction; Family & Relationships; Fiction - Literary

Publisher: Doubleday

Format: Hardcover, 352 pages

Pub Date: January 2006


Ayelet Waldman's Website

Michael Chabon's Website

After reading the first few chapters of "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits" by Ayelet Waldman, I thought I was in for one of those "wicked stepmother" stories and although it doesn't quite turn out that way, it is about a stepmom's inability to love her husband's child no matter how hard she tries.

Our narrator is Emilie Greenleaf, a trendy Harvard-educated New Yorker who has recently been recruited to work as an attorney for a prestigious law firm in Manhattan where she meets Jack (married with a child) and falls hard for him thus breaking her own rule about never dating married men "... I believe women who date married men are cruel and irresponsible, and they betray their sisters..." because she believes he is her bashert, the Jewish word for soul mate.

Jack returns her affections and soon he has moved out of his marital home and he and Emilia make a home together. The one thorn in this otherwise comfortable relationship is Jack's precocious 5-year old son, William, who Emilia just cannot seem to forge a bond with "...awkward and precocious, he (William) is far more comfortable with adults than with children his own age, an outsider able to explain the shifting orbits of the moons of Saturn but unable to ask another child to join him on the jungle gym..." It is also not unlikely that Emilia's own loss (she lost her 2-day old baby to SIDS) and intense feelings of guilt make the task of coping with a smart-alecky 5-year-old nearly impossible.

Anyway, the reason I think this novel is going to be on everybody's lips is not so much the novel itself (although it is a wonderful piece of writing) but because its controversial author, Ayelet Waldman is the type of author every woman loves to hate, especially after her article in the New York Times where she claims she loves her husband more than her children. She says she can see herself surviving the death of one of her children more easily than that of her husband, writer Michael Chabon. This declaration of love was seen as maternal ambivalence by a lot of indignant mothers and they wasted no time hauling her over the coals in public forums like Urban Baby. After all, loving anyone more than your children is one of the great taboos in societies where mother-love is celebrated
as one of the finest virtues.

Emilia, the narrator, seems in many ways to be a fictional Ayelet Waldman and the comparisons are not hard to find - Emilia is a vivacious red-head, so is Waldman; Emilia finds it hard to love her stepson but is crazy about her husband, Emilia loses her daughter Isabel to SIDS and Waldman had a miscarriage; Emilia is a lawyer, so is Waldman; Emily has huge mood swings, Waldman is openly bipolar...the comparisons go on and on. So bearing that in mind, I think what Waldman set out to do with this novel is to declare to the world her stance on motherhood, but by taking care to express it through a witty novel, rather than another article in the New York Times, she is sugar coating the pill and making sure she doesn't have more mothers personally up in arms against her.

But back to the novel:

It's a mostly witty piece of writing which shines a torch on the mommy world of Manhattan - a world of 5th Avenue apartments, nannies, chauffeurs and conceirges. Waldman has such a great descriptive style and I enjoyed seeing so many landmarks of New York, especially Central Park, come alive in her novel. She infuses a sardonic wit into her writing but can also be very tender. For instance, when Emilia lost her daughter Isabel to SIDS, Waldman used such emotional language to describe the grief and devastation that Emilia felt that I wanted to cry along with Emilia.

This book would make a great choice for a woman-only book club because it is packed with issues just begging to be discussed. For instance,

  • Do you think that a woman who puts her man over and above her kids is an ambivalent mother? What about a woman who completely devotes her life to her kids, is she in danger of making her marriage suffer?
  • Can a woman, or indeed a man, ever love someone else's child as much as one's own?
  • Is there any such thing as the perfect mother, or is that just a myth?
  • What about soul mates? Emilia was convinced Jack was her bashert
  • or soul mate, but does such a thing exist or is it just fantasy?

Readers who have read Lionel Shriver's "We Need to Talk About Kevin" (Winner of the Orange Prize for fiction) may draw a few parallels with the two books - both had maternal ambivalence as a common theme. Why, I wonder, is maternal ambivalence such a hot theme today?