Reviewed by Kim Edwards
Sunday, February 12, 2006
LOVE AND OTHER IMPOSSIBLE PURSUITS
By Ayelet Waldman
Doubleday. 340 pp. $23.95
In the opening scene of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits , Ayelet Waldman's compelling and artfully drawn new novel, Emilia Greenleaf is making her way through Central Park on her way to pick up her stepson, William, from daycare. The park, her refuge since childhood, holds the solitude she craves -- if only she can make it past the playgrounds. Emilia's infant daughter, Isabel, has recently died, exiling Emilia from the careless camaraderie of mothers and leaving her marriage to Jack Woolf in danger of collapse.
Isabel's death leaves Emilia, also, to cope with William, Jack's child from his first marriage. Emilia wants to love William, if only for Jack's sake, though he is a guilt-inducing reminder that her affair with his father inflicted lasting damage. But now that Isabel has died, Emilia finds William's presence insufferable. Her honesty on this point does not make her an immediately likable character, but it does steer this novel of a bereaved mother away from any hint of bathos. Emilia's voice is terrific -- sharp, witty, funny, resilient, sarcastic, passionate and very angry. She derides support groups, pushes away friends, tries the nearly unbelievable patience of all who love her until, at a crucial moment, Jack finally says, "It's not a get-out-of-jail-free card, Emilia. Isabel's death doesn't entitle you to do and say whatever the hell you want, to hurt whomever you want."
Grief does give a strange, unwelcome power to the griever, and adults defer to Emilia's loss, keeping a safe distance in various ways. William, however, must spend each Wednesday afternoon with her -- and she with him. William is a remarkable boy, precocious and serious, prone to pointing out to everyone within hearing that he's lactose intolerant. Emilia describes him as being like "a very small sixty-two-year-old man." But William is just 5 years old, still struggling with his parents' divorce and with the very idea of death. Emilia's feelings are the least of his concerns. In one particularly wrenching moment, William, while instructing Emilia on the intricacies of eBay, suggests pragmatically that they sell Isabel's things online. After all, since she's dead, she's not going to use them. The moment is so painful that it's hard to remember he's just a child, and Emilia's harsh response feels justified. Or it does until Jack comes home and sees past William's terrible suggestion to his innocence and confusion -- and his fear.
This complex dynamic shapes and propels the book -- there's a continual tug-of-war of sympathy -- and so does the growing awareness that Emilia, for all her candor, is not a completely trustworthy narrator. Indeed, her unreliability is one of the sources of this novel's tension and power. This is the story of a woman struggling through her grief, yes, but it's also the story of a woman forced by loss to re-evaluate her past and her choices, even her desires. She tries hard to connect with William and repair her family, but in pursuit of the perfect moment -- the moment when she can imagine "how we must look to an observer, a mother and her young son, laughing and running through the rain" -- she forgets about William himself, the boy right beside her, shivering with cold. The novel is beautifully paced and unfolds seamlessly, but as it builds, there's a disconcerting sense that Emilia is not telling the whole story -- and she isn't. Emilia isn't being duplicitous; she's simply lost in this landscape without a map. There's one vital truth she cannot see; another that she cannot admit. The novel turns on the moment when Jack's boundless patience finally runs out and they face off at last, opening the path to a complete rift or to healing.
Absolution comes for Emilia from an unexpected source, and she is able, finally, to emerge from her grief, to forgive her betrayals and those of others -- to forgive even the fact that love is not the stuff of fairy tales but something that grows from the ordinary moments, good and bad, that make a life. There are maps of Central Park, but Emilia, though often lost there, never buys one, sensing perhaps that the truest discoveries are made by plunging off the path into unknown territory, willingly or not. At the end of this absorbing novel, Isabel is still dead, and William still asks too many questions, but Emilia herself is movingly, powerfully transformed, having journeyed through the most difficult terrain a parent can imagine, learning on her way to appreciate life's "accidental beauty," its unexpected and inexplicable moments of grace. ·
Kim Edwards is the author of "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" and "The Secrets of a Fire King."