“Love and Other Impossible Pursuits” by Ayelet Waldman

I wanted to read Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Other Impossible Pursuits for several reasons. One, she’s been the subject of a few online kerfuffles, like saying she liked her husband (author Michael Chabon) to change light bulbs so she didn’t have to, and saying she loved him more than her kids. Two, she’s married to Chabon, and I wondered how their writing styles and subjects would differ. Three, I liked the premise: a young NYC stepmother struggles with a difficult stepson, and her grief over her infant’s death of SIDS.

Like Waldman’s online writing, the book veers between too much information and a refreshingly brutal honesty about things like being mad at children. It’s sometimes irritating, sometimes engaging.

My belief was often strained. Emilia eschewed group therapy in the wake of her daughter’s death, but this didn’t adequately explain why she, her doctor, or others didn’t railroad her into individual therapy, which she clearly needed. Her husband Jack’s ex-wife was too cruel to be believable; I would have welcomed some complexity. Her stepson William is presented as a precocious five-year old, but more than once it notes Phillip Pullman’s Amber Spyglass as his favorite book. Amber Spyglass is a YA book for 12 and up. I’ll allow that a real-life adult MIGHT read this violent, complex, sexual book to a 5yo, but for a fictional preschooler, however precocious, to claim it? No way.

And yet, I enjoyed parts of this book, too. Waldman’s crisp writing kept me reading at a quick clip. Emilia is immature and narcissistic, but she’s also smart and interesting. William, the stepson, was a great character, though I was horrified by many of the things he was subjected to, not just the ones his mother complained that Emilia put him through. The details of Central Park were lovingly drawn, and her ethnography of the NYC mommy/kid/nanny culture was fascinating.

I was reminded strongly of some of Jennifer Weiner’s books. Weiner’s Good in Bed also featured a young Jewish lawyer protagonist who goes through difficulties related to pregnancy. Both books are better written, and tackle darker issues, than the average beach-y chicklit novels they’re often lumped together with.

I wished, though, that Waldman dared venture further into darker territory. As a reader, I felt sorry for Emilia because of her grief, and because the ex-wife was vindictive and the stepson so challenging. But what about the all-too-real possibility of struggling with stepchildren without grief as an excuse for behaving badly? Or, even more transgressive, writing about a parent who dislikes her own biological or adoptive child, as Lionel Shriver did in We Have to Talk about Kevin?

The book had a tidy ending, one I saw far in advance. I think it flinched from some deeper truths. Because of this, I will probably skip Waldman’s latest, the nonfiction Bad Mother, in which she tackles some of the criticisms she’s endured in her volleys with the online public.

4 Responses to ““Love and Other Impossible Pursuits” by Ayelet Waldman”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    I agree — I’m actually more of a fan of Waldman’s detective series (Mommy - Track) and her non-fiction articles about parenting than I was of this novel. It was a bit better than most ‘chick lit,’ but not memorable. Check out the series if you are looking for escapist LA based mysteries….and do glance at Bad Mother — I thumbed through it at the airport yesterday and it looked intriguing.

  2. Amy Says:

    I had so much trouble with the infamous “I love my husband more than my kids” essay that I cannot bring myself to read more of her work. I feel so bad for those kids. Who wants to read that Mommy feels that if the kids died, she’d be sad but she’d get over it, but if Daddy dies, Mommy will be devastated? That crossed a big line for me.

  3. gretchen Says:

    I think that you liked the book more than I did. I thought that the book needed a ruthless editor; while the first chapters flew by, the second half of the book really dragged for me. I also thought that Emilia was entirely unsympathetic. To be sure, the loss of her child is tragic — but I thought that the story of her relationship with Jack was so narcissistic that it was virtually unreadable. I just grew so tired of Emilia, rhapsodizing about her bashert and her destiny and her soulmate while she kicks holes in other people’s marriages, that I had no patience for much of the story. When writing is strong, I’m happy to read about an unsympathetic protagonist (see, e.g., Curtis Sittenfeld’s oeuvre). But the combination of the writing and the deeply unsympathetic narrator just made the book a failure for me.

    Part of my dislike for the book, to be sure, emerged from the fact that I live in New York and find the entire Manhattan mommy scene to be both annoying and terrifying. But I also think that absent my personal take on it, the book really failed to make Emilia a character worth reading about.

  4. girldetective Says:

    I didn’t have a problem with the writing; it was clear and efficient, a result, I’m sure of Waldman’s experience writing legal briefs. And yes, in the second half I nearly threw in the towel on Emilia, who is, I think, supposed to be utterly insufferable at that point, and yes, her relationship with Jack is creepy. But she does grow and learn by the end (which the main character of Sittenfeld’s Prep didn’t, and that drove me mad, reading a whole entire book about that selfish twit), she was getting the hang of not being horrid to William, and had recognized her silly bashert talk and cruelty to others for the immature crap that they were.

    I think a lot of her insufferable behavior can also be traced to what she believed about her loss that she didn’t tell others till later. Having lived through those crazy days just after having a baby, I can easily imagine and sympathize with the enormity of what happened, and what she feared. Having that fester inside would definitely mess a person up.

    I have a good friend who is a mommy in Manhattan, and I love hearing dispatches from her. But the mommy culture is tough and bizarre everywhere, even her in seemingly normal MN, lots of judgment masks lots of fear and (self) loathing, I think.