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Love and Other Impossible Pursuits
By Ayelet Waldman
Emilia Greenleaf Woolf doesn't walk around with a large, scarlet letter "A" across her chest, but she might as well. Each Wednesday, when she picks up her stepson, William, from nursery school, she faces the cold reproach of his classmates' mothers, who shun her for breaking up her husband's first marriage. To make matters worse, William is an oddly precocious, intense child, and their relationship is fraught with mutual resentment and anxiety.
Yet Emilia, Ayelet Waldman's protagonist in Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, is in a fog so deep that these problems almost seem hazy. Just a few days after bringing home her newborn daughter from the hospital, the baby died in her arms. Emilia's grief and anger are all-consuming, and the things that once gave her the most joy - from stroller-filled Central Park to her own body - are now terrible reminders of her loss.
Waldman's descriptions of Emilia's elaborate rituals to avoid the new mothers in the park, her grappling with a now too-snug winter coat, and her refusal to pack away the baby's things all ring true, as does Emilia's relationship with her husband, Jack.
Waldman courted some controversy last year when she wrote an essay for the New York Times implying that she loved her husband, the Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Michael Chabon, more than their four children. "He and I are the core... the children are satellites, beloved but tangential," she wrote. "If I were to lose one of my children, God forbid, even if I lost all my children, God forbid, I would still have him, my husband."
In Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Waldman fleshes out that terrible scenario. She also creates a truly "tangential" child - one whose place in her life is based completely on his status as an extension of the man she adores.
"My assumption was that I would love him," Emilia says. "I love the father so very much, it seemed inevitable that I would love the child."
Emilia feels terribly guilty for the ambivalence she feels towards Jack's son, but he seems to bring out the worst in her.
When the five-year-old suggests selling the baby's things on eBay, Emilia snaps and shouts, "Shut up! Just shut up!" The boy's finicky precociousness makes her uncomfortable, and she can never undo the fact that she is responsible for his parents' divorce.
Waldman does an excellent job of developing Emilia's relationship with William - even if the ending is a bit too pretty.
But even before the denouement, the book is not without its flaws.
The language, especially toward the beginning of the book, is often stilted, self-conscious and overly formal for the first-person narrative she uses.
Sentences like "the commencement of my relationship with Jack was the most typical of stories," leave the reader hoping that Waldman will pour herself a glass of wine.
The character speaking this stiffly doesn't match the intense, impulsive woman who seduced her married boss in his office with the door wide open.
The book's almost fetishistic love of New York becomes tedious, and Waldman's name-dropping of restaurants, brands and addresses date the story and detract from its richness.
Nonetheless, Waldman succeeds in creating a complex, sympathetic and flawed character, never letting Emilia entirely off the hook, even in her deepest grief.