Monday, September 21, 2015

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, by Ayelet Waldman

Emilia Greenleaf, the protagonist of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, is emotionally overwrought. Her daughter Isabel died of SIDS on her first day home from the hospital and Emilia holds herself responsible (although the reader isn't told this immediately, it is fairly apparent). She hates walking by playgrounds or anywhere else there are pregnant women or mothers with young children. She can barely tolerate her five-year-old stepson William who, it must be said, is something of a know-it-all and has a penchant for quoting his mother (who, quite understandably, can't stand Emilia). Emilia's husband Jack, whom she adores and firmly believes is her bashert, is frustrated with her inability to return to any semblance of normalcy following their tragic loss. As her relationship with William deteriorates, Jack becomes ever-more concerned until their marriage reaches a crisis point. A not-entirely-believable happy ending ties everything up neatly.

At times, I asked myself if Waldman intended this book as a satire, but--despite some funny moments--the description of the book on her website suggests that she did not ("With wry candor and tender humor, acclaimed novelist Ayelet Waldman has crafted a strikingly beautiful novel for our time"--okay, it's marketing talk, but it's so off-base it's laughable). It is hard to see how some reviewers think Emilia is a self-aware and sympathetic character. If she were self-aware, would she: punish her father for years for leaving her mother and then make a play for her married boss, insisting they were soulmates, or mock the grief of other bereaved parents taking part in a memorial walk while she herself has been rendered nearly paralyzed by her daughter's death. And there are other examples. Certainly, the parent-stepchild relationship can be difficult, but her behavior towards William, who is, after all, only five, ratchets back and forth from trying too hard to not trying at all; it's despicable (his actual mother's behavior is also questionable). 

The effect that loss of a child can have on a parent (I've been there) and the challenges of trying to make yourself love a difficult stepchild (I haven't been there) are good themes, but Waldman invests her ideas about those themes in a character so immature and self-centered that I found nothing to take away from this book.

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