“ ‘Do we have a title?’ asked Charles.
‘How about something simple?’ Malabar said. ‘We could call it Wild Game. It tells the reader what to expect but promises adventure, too.’
‘It’s perfect,’ Lily said.
Ben touched his glass to my mother’s. ‘To our wild game, Malabar.’ ”
The double entendre was perfectly obvious even at the time, at least to the three who were in on the conspiracy: Malabar, Ben, and 14-year-old Adrienne, known as Rennie, who was roped into their illicit liaison minutes after the first adulterous kiss.
Brodeur’s book about her mother’s very long con and her own miserable role in it manages to be both elegant and trashy at the same time, elevating 40-year-old gossip to an art form. To situate her on the “Mommie Dearest” scale, Brodeur combines the you’re-not-gonna-believe-this outrage of a Sean Wilsey (“Oh the Glory of It All”) with the high-test filial devotion of a Mary Karr (“The Liars’ Club.”)
Three months before that fateful dinner, in July 1980, a similar gathering, with an identical guest list and a similar agenda of food and drink took place. After a couple of tumblers of bourbon, the two couples progressed to the “power pack” — a dry Manhattan with a twist. (Just the way watching the movie “Leaving Las Vegas” may drive you to a bar, I find I have been desperate for a “power pack” ever since I read this book.)
Then on to the kitchen where Malabar made theater of the preparation of the sack of headless squabs Ben had brought. Behind her, a panoramic view of Nauset Harbor on Cape Cod; before her, a rectangle of butter “softened into a glistening mound.”
With every detail, Brodeur conveys that sex was in the air that night. Young Rennie herself was waiting impatiently for a chance to slip out and meet the neighbor boy with whom she’d been having nightly make-out sessions. They only get to first base, but back in bed she can’t stop thinking about it.
Next thing she knows her mother is bent over her, begging her to wake up. “Ben Souther just kissed me,” she breathlessly confides. Malabar has to say it several times before her daughter can take it in. Rennie has known the Southers since she was 8, which is when her mother married Charles. Charles and Ben have been best friends for 50 years; they have “hunted and fished together, dated each other’s sisters, been ushers at each other’s weddings, and become godfather to each other’s sons.”
Shouldn’t Malabar have slapped Ben? Rennie wondered at the time. Apparently not. “Joy had fallen from the night sky and landed in my mother’s voice.” Malabar goes on to explain that she will need her daughter’s help in figuring out how to conduct the affair in secret. She must not tell anyone, not her brother, not her father, not her friends. “Promise me that, Rennie. You must take the secret to your grave.”
Brodeur, a former book and magazine editor, pinpoints this luscious, passionate, awful evening as the beginning of the rest of her life. She is not exaggerating. Her emotional and practical involvement in her mother’s affair became the controlling factor of her existence, warping every relationship and decision up to and including her first marriage, a nearly gothic plot development that deserves not to be spoiled. The publication of this memoir, occurring after many players are dead and Malabar in her 80s, suffering from dementia, is not even the true ending of the wild game, but only a way station in its long denouement.
The shocking cruelty of involving her daughter in this scheme, driving a wedge between her and everyone else in her life, was never clear to Malabar. “Remember, we are two halves of one whole,” she told her daughter, calling her back from Hawaii where Brodeur had impulsively fled to take a gap year before college.
“Please don’t ever do that again,” her mother begs her on her return. “I felt like I was missing a limb without you.” At this point, Brodeur is accompanied by a boyfriend, a pot dealer she met in the gift shop where she worked — the first person with whom she ever shared her secret. When he reacted with horror at her mother’s conduct, Brodeur became so furious they decided to pretend they had never had the conversation. This misdirected anger never takes aim at its rightful target; in the very last sentence of the book, the author offers thanks to “Malabar Brewster, my first and most abiding love.”
By the time Brodeur returns from Hawaii at 18, “four years since Ben first kissed my mother, fifteen hundred days, thirty-five thousand hours. Twelve million minutes,” many millions of minutes more await the enraptured reader. Self-dramatizing tendencies may have been a problem for Malabar, but they work beautifully in Brodeur’s memoir, making a glittering, insightful page-turner of the worst-case scenario of mother-daughter boundary issues.
At 7 p.m. on Oct. 16, Adrienne Brodeur will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW Washington, D.C.
My Mother, Her Lover, and Me
By Adrienne Brodeur
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 256 pp. $27