|When a novel is told in the first person, our impulse is to sympathize with the narrator. She is, after all, the consciousness propelling the story. But she isn’t always its conscience, and that means we shouldn’t always trust the teller of the tale. This is especially tricky when the narrator is bitter and angry at the world because her two-day old baby daughter has just died.
In Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Ayelet Waldman, also the author of the engaging Mommy Track mysteries (no connection to mommytrackd.com ) gives us Emilia Greenleaf, smart, sassy, sexy Harvard educated attorney turned grief-obsessed emotional wreck. As if losing her baby were not enough, Emilia, whose affair with her husband Jack destroyed his first marriage, is having a hard time connecting with Jack’s 5 year old son, William. Too precocious for words and comically overprotected by his angry mother, William hasn’t exactly warmed to Emilia as his stepmother, either.
It’s impossible not to sympathize with Emilia, and it’s almost as difficult not to like her. She engages us right away with her ironic commentary on her own misery, and we enjoy her company as we walk with her through New York’s Central Park, avoiding playgrounds and anywhere else small children are likely to be. But we come to realize that her grief has made her selfish and sometimes carelessly cruel, as if it were, as her beloved husband asserts, a “get out of jail free card” that entitles her to hurt others.
In a voice at once sad and bitterly self-absorbed and often blind to the consequences of the dangerous pleasure she takes in her own isolation, Emilia finally comes to understand the dangers of romanticizing grief and idealizing love. If the novel falters occasionally with its too-broad skewering of political correctness, if William is at times just too wise to believe, the novel still speaks wisely, wittily, and compellingly of the nature of real family love.