2006_02_bookswaldman.jpgI just read Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, by Ayelet Waldman. Let’s put aside the actual book for a minute and talk about the author. Now, it’s somewhat fashionable to dislike Ayelet Waldman, and I confess I am no exception. I’m not talking about her as a novelist, because this is the first book of hers that I’ve read. No, I based my dislike – as did, I’m sure, thousands of her other detractors – on the article she wrote about being madly in love with her husband almost to the exclusion of everyone else in her life. Her husband being, as the book jacket so archly points out, “the novelist Michael Chabon”. A lot of people disliked the tone of the article – seemingly both callous and crowing but above all, too much information with not enough widespread applicability to its readers’ lives. At least, those are the reasons I disliked it.

So perhaps it was with some wicked anticipation that I picked up Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. Perhaps I was hoping to hold Waldman critically responsible for her fiction, as opposed to her life. But she might be better at the fiction. Emilia Greenleaf is Waldman’s dubious protagonist - a woman whose first marriage is to a man who left a wife and young son for her. She married Jack Woolf in defiance of every pat moral that women hold themselves to about sisterhood and fidelity. She got pregnant, and she lost the baby to SID (Sudden Infant Death). And when we meet Emilia, she’s coming unhinged, and the afternoons she spends with Jack’s precocious son William are the razors that tear at her last shreds of normalcy.

If Emilia sounds a little like Waldman, it’s because she is. For every detail Waldman’s made fictional, there’s a corollary to her own life that’s difficult to ignore. Emilia is a rambunctious, passionate redhead. Emilia hero-worships her husband, and it’s a hero-worship that Waldman carefully starts to show us isn’t based on reality so much as a high-flying notion of romance and magic. So even as I felt myself nitpicking the obvious similarities between Emilia and Waldman, I had to begrudgingly credit the author – if Emilia is herself, she’s more than aware of her own flaws.

What I give Waldman credit for is her ability to slowly unravel an unraveling character – we’re allowed to like Emilia but we’re never too far away from another one of her destructive, careless moments. Waldman over shares it all – the love and the disastrous effects thereof. Emilia is the quintessential unreliable narrator and any author that navigates that minefield successfully deserves praise for doing so. It’s a careful balance of keeping your readers ahead of the curve and keeping them in the dark – both empathy and criticism must be fostered.

And the way to do it is to allow the other characters to play the foil realistically – another success of Waldman’s. William, specifically, is a joy of a character. He’s obnoxious, irascible, manipulative, and utterly realistic as the pampered five year old whose world has gotten torn apart early enough for him to be brutally honest about it. It’s a treat to see Emilia through his eyes, and ultimately his brash view of the world snaps her out of the self-obsessed malaise.

On of my complaints was the glibness that Waldman allows into such an intricate plot. Sometimes, Emilia’s head games sound like a self-referential blog post. In moments of real anguish, other characters say or do things that seem like they’re meant to provide levity, but they take us out of the moment and into a sitcom. I hated these moments – if the book is going to be about the painful wounds caused by death, divorce, betrayal, let those wounds stand alone without smarmily restorative humor. And without ruining it, the clumsy deus ex machina at the end which brings Emilia back into some instant haze of clarity was almost too much, too defined, too neat. I was getting used to the destruction Emilia was wreaking in her life – perhaps Waldman couldn’t stand to see her alter-ego get it wrong? It needed more time, more work, for Emilia to realistically come to her senses.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about the novel was that I liked it more than I thought I would – precisely because Waldman’s blowsy, dramatic style works better when it’s fiction than when it’s her life.