Vacation Vignette #3: Book Review

August 24, 2006

I read two books on my trip. One was the latest book club pick — a historical fiction about the Mexican revolutionary war and the patron saint Theresa called The Hummingbird’s Daughter. A beautifully written novel by Luis Alberto Urrea, it was a tad long for this busy mama: 500 pages.

The book that piqued my interest and that I plowed through in two days, was Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman.

Waldman is a Salon columnist who set off a national firestorm — including an appearance on Oprah a couple of years ago — for a blog entry, in which she placed her husband before her children. She also bragged about how she was getting more sex than the other moms at the park. This last detail left a bad taste in my mouth because when I read it, I was still nursing Ari, not sleeping through the night and not feeling charitable towards my husband.

She also wrote about a second-trimester abortion when she discovered the baby had a birth defect. While I appreciated the honesty of the piece, I also cringed. To me, at least, it fed into the perception that only affluent women who don’t get perfect babies have abortions. It made me wish there were more diverse voices in the media on this issue.

Still, Waldman is a fine writer. And a damn entertaining one. In Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, she writes about the internal struggles of Emilia Greenleaf, a Harvard-educated paralegal in New York, who marries a successful lawyer and divorcee named Jack, and must contend with stepson William, a precocious, lactose intolerant five-year-old. Even worst — and this is where the novel gets interesting — she struggles with the loss of her and Jack’s two-day-old baby Isabel.

The novel deals with the complicated relationship between children and their stepparents. It also touches on infertility and child loss.

Emilia finds herself in this lonely world where she feels that those who have miscarried really don’t understand the loss of a child. Yet, the presence of mothers in Central Park only remind her of what she has lost. Here is an excerpt of her thoughts as she picks up William at his nursery school:

A claque of women follows me into the elevator. Two are pregnant; one holds a baby strapped to her chest in a black leather Baby Bjorn infant carrier. The last pushes a Bugaboo stroller identical to the one parked outside my apartment. Because of course the irony is that for all my expertise as the preeminent cartographer of a childfree Central Park, my very destination is into the belly of the beast. My goal, my journey’s end, is the 92nd Street Y Nursery School. All this fecundity would have stopped me dead in my tracks had I stumbled upon it in the park. Central Park is my refuge, and its invasion by the baby brigade enrages and devastates me. At the preschool, however, I am used to a certain quality and quantity of misery. I have never been anything but uncomfortable and unhappy here. To be reduced to tears in the elevator by the milk-drunk flush of an infant’s cheek is pretty much par for the course.

Waldman, who has four children of her own with novelist husband Michael Chabon, does a good job of placing herself in Emilia’s shoes and taking us through all the emotions of such unspeakable loss: despair, alienation, anger and conflict. After a series of clever twists and rehashing of the sordid details surrounding Isabel’s death, Emilia gains strength from an unlikely source: William.

I was especially impressed with the amount of depth and humanness in all of Waldman’s characters. Seeing that this novel largely takes place among affluence in hoity-toity Manhattan, Waldman ran the risk of whiny characters. Yet, she objectively drew out their flaws and aired out into the open the universal human condition of suffering.

There are no good and bad guys. At times you are disgusted with Emilia: the way she treats William, and her audacity to have cheated on his mother with Jack. But you root for her most of the time because she is faced with overcoming an unspeakable loss.

At times you hate Jack’s ex-wife Carolyn, but it’s difficult to stay mad at her for too long. She, after all, is a doctor with high marks on who has handled marital infidelity and single motherhood with much aplomb. The same goes with Jack, who, despite his initial stigma as a cheater, you can’t help admire his rags to riches story and close relationship with William.

While I was hooked on the sordid details and rawness of emotions surrounding Isabel’s death, I think women dealing with infertility and stepmothers, in particular, would appreciate this novel.