Ayelet Waldman's "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits" is a novel that, like its main character, wants desperately to be loved. But like the tedious Emilia Greenleaf, it throws up so many roadblocks that the most it can muster up is a feeling of tolerant ambivalence.
Waldman has so much good material to work with -- children of divorce, workplace affairs, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the anxiety of parenting and the challenges of step-parenting, the psychology of grief, anger and jealousy -- that it is a shame she falls short of the mark.
A bit of background: Waldman is married to the handsome, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Michael Chabon, whose oeuvre has met with more critical acclaim that Waldman's. Waldman kicks up dust by talking candidly about suicidal impulses and her feelings for her husband vs. her children, and her work attracts attention no matter what its quality.
Narrator Emilia is a New Yorker who, after an affair with a married co-worker ends in marriage, loses her day-old daughter to SIDS. The novel examines Emilia's grief, most heavy-handedly in her ambivalence toward her 5-year-old stepson, William.
It's tough to be harsh about a character who has lost a newborn, but within a few pages -- pages in which Waldman attempts to sell overwrought, sophomoric passages about Central Park as deftly etched, lyrical metaphor -- Emilia's self-centered ruminations begin to grate. We have all gone through periods of self-obsession in which we dump on ourselves and anyone else within shouting distance. Waldman is perhaps too skillful at rendering this tendency in Emilia, because in the time it takes her to describe Emilia's walk across Central Park (an expedition that seems to take longer to read about than it would to walk), Emilia has earned herself a "snap-out-of-it" slap.
William is an intellectually gifted child who is as tiresome in his way as Emilia is in hers. Emilia's resentment and lack of motherly feelings toward William are not unfounded; he is one of those precocious children whose parents have provided him with everything but the graciousness not to push other adults' buttons.
Chapter after chapter, Waldman shows us just how ill-equipped Emilia is to parent, much less love, William. Emilia struggles with hailing a taxi in the rain while holding a car seat. Emilia says the wrong thing about William's art project. Emilia wrinkles her nose at the doggie doo on William's shoe.
Emilia is so wound up in herself that though she knows she is tedious and annoying and even mocks herself for it, she continues to wallow, living her life of loud desperation. Self-absorbed characters are not a bad thing; they can be quite compelling, in fact. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of plodding through some very wooden writing before Emilia approaches the outskirts of mildly interesting.
Over time Emilia's recollections about her childhood and her seduction of Jack begin to trickle out, and the reader is finally rewarded with some insight into the character's motives. As Emilia's self-pity begins turns to self-loathing, the lines between that and her hostility toward William blur.
Emilia begins flouting the proto-yuppie rules established by William's mother, all the while denying to herself that her actions are in any way intentional. In her ultimate slip, she allows him to fall through the ice covering a Central Park pond.
This turning point is welcome in one respect: It signals, with precious little subtlety, that the action is going to shift out of D for Dull and into C for Climax. Central Park equals Emilia's interior life. The pond ice equals the ice around Emilia's heart. William breaks through the ice. Get it? If not, Waldman probably has an anvil engraved with the words "Painfully Obvious Metaphor" that she'd be willing to drop on your head.
For some readers, the poignancy of the subject matter and the sympathetic feelings for Waldman will be more than enough to recommend this book. For others, the piercing descriptions of New Yorkers' lifestyles will be enough to acquit the author.
But readers who like their fiction well written, properly paced and energetically edited will find it close to impossible to love this book.
Barbara Sullivan is a News staff reporter.
Love and Other Impossible Pursuits
By Ayelet Waldman
Doubleday, 340 pages, $23.95