Family Romance, Tweaked, Degenerates into Histrionics

The name Ayelet, as in Ayelet Waldman, has become something of an epithet on the fabulously acerbic, anonymous, Gotham-centric Internet chat board “But who is Ayelet?” some clueless UB neophyte will occasionally wander in and wonder. “Self-obsessed navel-gazer who writes incredibly dull articles for Salon about her tedious life,” responded one poster recently. “She is an ass on about 15 different levels,” wrote another. “How the hell did that pasty, puffy-faced woman get Chabon?” snarled a third, referring to Ms. Waldman’s husband, pretty-boy author Michael Chabon ( Wonder Boys), whom she often discusses in her work, along with such topics as her bipolarity, feminism and the stresses of modern parenting.

What really riled the UB ladies—as well as much of the blogosphere—was when Ms. Waldman wrote a “Modern Love” column last spring for the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times, wherein she crowed: “I am the only woman in Mommy and Me who seems to be, well, getting any.” She went on to rave about her sex life with Mr. Chabon (“always vital, even torrid”—just call her the Marla Maples of mommy lit!) and to declare baldly that she loves her hunky hubby more than her four children. If, “God forbid,” the tykes were taken from her, she wrote, well, at least she’d have her husband. And if Mr. Chabon perished? “I can imagine no joy.” The essay made an original point, but it came off as smug and show-offy at best, simply bonkers at worst. O.K., she might feel this way, but did we—or, for that matter, her kids—really need to know it? And did she have to go on Oprah to discuss it some more?

Ms. Waldman’s new novel, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits—her first was the decently received Daughter’s Keeper (2003); she also writes a trashy-looking series of “Mommy-Track Mysteries”—continues with her favored theme: plumbing the tension between marital and maternal ardor. Though the author and her brood live in the Bay Area, her new book is something of a valentine to New York in general and Central Park in particular. We first meet the protagonist, Emilia Greenleaf, walking by the reservoir, averting her eyes from the Diana Ross Playground and hinting at a terrible absence in her life.

It’s not immediately clear what her problem is. Emilia lives in a great Upper West Side doorman building and has a wonderful husband, Jack Woolf (more “literary,” one supposes, than “Wolf”), a partner in a law firm whom she lured from his ex-wife, an overbearing obstetrician named Carolyn. Jack and Emilia’s passion and essential rightness for each other (that instantly recognizable destined-to-be-togetherness that the Jews call bashert) simply could not be denied: “I love him so much that I am in a state of constant terror that something will happen to him,” Emilia confides, sounding awfully like Ayelet (from the description, she also looks awfully like Ayelet, with red hair and a Harvard degree). “I love him so much that I want to swallow him,” she continues, à la Ayelet, “to start with his curled pinkie toes and work my way up to the whorls of his small and high-set ears.”

The fallout from this ideal union is that Emilia must play stepmother to Jack and Carolyn’s 5-year-old son, William, whom she compares to a “very small sixty-two-year-old man.” He’s one of those over-supervised New York City kids with lactose intolerance, a bulky booster seat for cab rides, a helmet for ice-skating and that stock tendency of the fictional troubled child toward unbearably precocious pronouncements (see Jerry Maguire, etc.).

As the story unfolds (which it does at a decent clip—Ms. Waldman, even some UB’ers would admit, knows how to pace a narrative), it becomes clear that Emilia’s negative feelings toward William spring not from mere stepmotherly grinchiness. She, too, had a child with Jack, a baby girl named Isabel who lived only two days. Worse, she died not in a hospital, with the doctors doing everything they could to save her, but under somewhat cloudy circumstances (SIDS? smothering?) after Emilia fell asleep while breastfeeding—the most wretched confluence of nourishment and deprivation imaginable. The unflinchingly detailed pages that describe this event (you’ll have to wait until Chapter 12) are excruciating, particularly for anyone who’s ever struggled with the mind-altering brew of anxiety and exhaustion that results from meeting a newborn’s inchoate needs.

Though heartrending, the death of Isabel feels like a ploy on Ms. Waldman’s part. The tragedy of this helpless baby’s fate keeps you holding the book long after it degenerates into a histrionic tale of family dynamics, a shrill psychodrama involving Emilia’s adored father—who cheated on her mother with a young Russian stripper—and, later, the intimately related and unsurprising crisis in Emilia and Jack’s blissful marriage.

Emilia moves in with another stock character, the requisite sassy gay-sidekick friend, Simon (is it any wonder this book has already been optioned by Walt Disney Pictures?); clashes with William’s tell-it-like-it-is nanny, Sonia; dryly attends an infant-loss awareness convention in the park; and shops for her first pair of postpartum designer jeans at Barneys as if it’s a morally redemptive act. “They make your ass look great,” Jack tells her—the sort of blandishment one imagines Michael lavishing on Ayelet in their torrid, vital marriage.

The most interesting part of Impossible Pursuits is ultimately not the sappy story line but Ms. Waldman’s precise rendering of a certain class of Bugaboo-wielding, hand-wringing, maniacal Manhattan mommy, most cartoonishly the harsh and withholding Carolyn, who throws a fit when William fails to get into Collegiate, Dalton or Trinity but is accepted at Ethical Culture—“a mediocre school … second-rate.” Gadzooks!

The author also drops several references to the Urbanbaby boards. In other words, she probably knows she’s been accused of posting links to articles about herself and trying to stir up discussion of pieces she’s written:

“For those interested in Ayelet (or not), there was a profile of her in the San Francisco Chronicle—link inside,” chirped one UB town crier as Ms. Waldman was enjoying her media blitz.

“Stop it Ayelet,” came the grumpy retort. “We don’t care about you.”

Later, another little voice tentatively piped into cyberspace: “Here’s Ayelet’s latest column on I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but looks interesting.”

“Shuddup Ayelet.”

Alexandra Jacobs is features editor of The Observer. Family Romance, Tweaked, Degenerates into Histrionics