Monday, June 05, 2006
LOVE AND OTHER IMPOSSIBLE PURSUITS
William Wolf, the precocious five year old in Ayelet Waldman’s new novel has a lot on his mind. He worries about his lactose-free diet, about ice-skating without a helmet, or getting his feet wet in the park. He frets about getting into a pre-school that will put him on the track to Harvard so he won’t disappoint his high-achieving parents. But it is his unspoken anxieties that underlie and ultimately drive the novel. How does he remain loyal to his mother and still get along with his father’s sexy new wife, Emilia? How does he handle his stepmother’s lingering grief for the loss of her own baby--or her resentment toward him? How on earth is he ever going to have any fun?
I resisted this novel at first--or more specifically, I resisted its protagonist, the self-absorbed Emilia who seduces William’s father away from William and his mother, Caroline and then refuses to open her heart to the child. I didn’t trust this woman with either William, whose care she repeatedly bungles or with Isabel, the baby whose death remains something of a mystery until the end of the novel.
But eventually Emilia won me over with her unflinching honesty. If the reader finds it hard to forgive some of her transgressions, she is even harder on herself. Undoubtedly, she speaks for many stepparents, struggling to love children not tied to them by the inclinations of biology. But what really redeems Emilia is that she keeps trying.
In the end, this novel is a love story--not between Emilia and her husband, who seems to spend most of his time at work, but between Emilia and William. Waldman uses Central Park, the scene of Emilia’s happiest childhood memories and the most painful reminders of her loss as a source of healing for both of them. Taking the fearful William by the hand, she drags him into the land of skinned knees and unpredictable adventure, of secret pacts and muddied jeans that is the true province of childhood--and of that messy, imperfect thing we call love.