Ayelet Waldman is a wicked, wicked girl. Just ask the thousands of e-mailers who hurled bolts of vitriol her way after she dared to declare in a New York Times opinion piece last year that she loved her husband more than she loved her children. Or ask the "Oprah" audience that came to a studio in Chicago to bury Waldman, not to praise her for the self-same transgression.
"It sounds very naïve to say I had no idea, but the real truth is I had no idea," Waldman says of the heated reaction to her op-ed during a call to her home in Berkeley, California. It is 7 a.m. and Waldman, a multi-tasker par excellence, and her husband, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, are getting their four hungry, rambunctious-sounding kids ready for school.
"I knew what I was saying was controversial and I constructed the piece in a way that I knew would grab the reader," Waldman says between side conversations with Chabon about butter and oatmeal, "but I really hadn't processed the fact that appearing in the Times meant that five million people would be sending me hate mail."
What most surprises the not-very-repentant Waldman about the stir she created is that she had previously expressed similar views in her humorous and popular Mommy Track mystery books, in her Salon.com columns, and, in a way, in her first serious, literary novel, Daughter's Keeper. "And I would get feedback from women who all said, oh my God, finally someone is saying this!"
Waldman's sharply observed, completely absorbing and sometimes wickedly humorous new novel might just provoke the same intensely polarized reaction among readers as did her op-ed piece. Set in contemporary New York, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits tells the story of Emilia Greenleaf, a mother devastated by the loss of her newborn daughter, and struggling – not very successfully, it seems – to relate to her sensitive, annoyingly precocious stepson William, do battle with the boy's neurotic, controlling and bitterly contemptuous mother and preserve her marriage to the boy's father, Jack Wolff, a wealthy corporate attorney and extraordinarily compassionate man she believes to be her soul mate.
"If you had asked me a few months ago [if the op-ed piece and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits were related], I would have said, of course not," Waldman says, "because I never know on anything but a subconscious level what a book is about until I start discussing it in interviews. Now I realize that the book is linked to the op-ed piece in the way that all of my work is linked: I began writing because I had something to say about maternal ambivalence, and I have been writing about maternal ambivalence in a million different ways ever since."
Later, Waldman adds, "I wanted to write about this feeling that you have when you just don't like a kid. It happens all the time. And I thought, what if that kid is yours and you don't have that maternal bond? Step-parenting seems to be this quintessential dilemma. You're supposed to assume all the affection and devotion of a parent but at the same time this is someone who quite often hates you and who stands between you and your spouse. And if your spouse is a decent person, he or she generally feels an intense amount of ambivalence because even if your relationship wasn't the cause of the divorce [as it is in the case of Emilia and Jack, who begin an affair while working together as attorneys], there is still guilt for having replaced one relationship with the other."
Waldman's exploration of Emilia's plight draws emotional power from her own experience of losing a baby late in pregnancy. It is an experience she had written about in columns on Salon.com and "written around" in a previous novel and a short story. But, Waldman says, she found herself "needing to write about it closer and closer. . . . And then, when it came time to write this book, I was ready to write really directly about the feelings of grief."
And that is not all Waldman drew from the well of personal experiences to create her character Emilia Greenleaf. Like her protagonist, Waldman was born in northern New Jersey ("Glenrock instead of Ridgewood," Waldman quips. "That was my one big cloaking device!"), has a father with children from a previous marriage, loves Central Park (which looms so large that it is essentially a character in the novel), graduated from Harvard Law School and possesses an acerbic sense of humor, to name just a few.
But to surmise that Emilia is simply a stand-in for the author is to diminish Waldman's remarkable achievement in creating the compelling, complex, sometimes likeable, sometimes not-so-likeable character of Emilia. Besides, Emilia is neither as disarmingly candid as Waldman nor as funny. And the deeply conflicted Emilia could never have invented the novel's most luminous character, William, the precocious, overly sensitive preschooler, who in the end becomes Emilia's sweet agent of grace.
Love and Other Impossible Pursuits tumbled forth, Waldman says, "in what was the most amazing writing experience of my life. I felt I couldn't type fast enough to keep up with my head. I wasn't even conscious of constructing the book in my mind. I felt like it was being read to me."
According to Waldman, William tumbled forth right alongside Emilia. And the wonderfully rendered character of William along with the joyous hubbub in the background of the call (at one point Waldman shouts over the din, "I have very normal children, like right now they're sitting around the table shrieking booger! at one another.") makes one wonder what the op-ed/"Oprah" controversy is really all about.
"There was this funny moment on Oprah's show," Waldman says, "where one of the women looked at me with surprise and said, but you're not evil! and I said, nooooo, I'm really not."
Wicked maybe. But evil? Definitely not.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.