In the annals of online bitchery, there’s nothing quite like UrbanBaby—that anonymous Website where Manhattan moms hiss like stylish vipers. Ayelet Waldman is a favorite target on its discussion boards, where her name has become a catchword for emotional overshare. And no wonder: Waldman has mashed plenty of mommy-outrage buttons with her “Bad Mother” blog and her essays describing suicidal impulses and a second-trimester abortion—not to mention a notorious Times column about loving her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, more than she does her kids. (“My heart just breaks for her children,” one UrbanBaby mother moaned.)
Rather than crumble before her critics, Waldman has found the perfect revenge: She’s turned UrbanBaby into her muse. Her novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits mentions the site over and over, and to a regular reader, it may also appear to have been nurtured, bonsai-style, out of obsessions cut and pasted from its threads: “sanctimommies,” Seven jeans, and tensions among outraged wives and careless mistresses. The result might’ve been mere fluff like The Nanny Diaries. Instead, Waldman achieves something a bit better: a smart and finally affecting portrayal of a woman working her way out of her own grandiose self-image into something like real love.
Like Waldman herself, the novel’s narrator is the type of woman UrbanBaby loves to hate. A mistress turned wife, Emilia has seduced Jack, a wealthy lawyer, away from his wife and child, convinced that he is her bashert, or soul mate. “I was the atom bomb of desire,” she muses about Jack’s family, “and they were Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I could not spare time for mercy. I had a war to win.” But when we meet her, it is Emilia who has been destroyed. Grieving for a newborn lost to sids, Emilia is haunted by a city filled with pregnant bellies and tortured by her inability to love her “insufferable” stepson, 5-year-old William, with his illusory dairy allergy and encyclopedic knowledge of practically everything.
Emilia’s opposite number is Jack’s vengeful first wife, Carolyn: Upper East Side to Emilia’s Upper West, Wasp to her Jew, a frigid “helicopter mom” so status-addled she pitches a fit when William doesn’t make the cut at Collegiate. In its early pages, the book flirts with some moldy chick-lit clichés—will this menschy, messy ethnic sexpot triumph over her icy Aryan nemesis?—and I found myself anticipating the usual Streisandian plot turns (a humanizing moment for the villainess! Followed by romantic payback for our heroine!). But Waldman is a subtler writer than that—and, finally, tougher. Rather than humanize her villainess, Waldman makes a more surprising turn: She humbles her heroine, removing the psychological struts that support her aggrieved self-image and revealing Emilia to be her own unreliable narrator. As Emilia discovers that she is not precisely the hero of her own story, she becomes, perversely, both less and more sympathetic, and her suffering takes on new dimensions.
A SIDS death is a brutal subject to dramatize, and the passages describing it are wrenching to read. (At Isabel’s funeral, Emilia’s milk comes in and soaks her shirt.) But Love and Other Impossible Pursuits is often strongest at its most satirical, whether tweaking Emilia’s self-righteous Park Slope sister or distinguishing uptown moms from their nannies by their “crumpled comfort at a four-figure price.” In one nicely outrageous sequence, Carolyn confronts Emilia at the 92nd Street Y, screaming at her for having taken William to the Harlem Meer—only to have her harangue derailed by an elderly busybody who in turn berates Carolyn for her “criticisms of Harlem” and then for mistreating Emilia, who she assumes must be Carolyn’s nanny. “It takes a village to raise a child … I’m your village, my dear, whether you like it or not!” The book has a few missteps (must Emilia have a snarky gay friend?), but Waldman finds a nice balance between satire and compassion, as in her portrayal of William, needy beneath his know-it-all exterior.
For Ayelet haters and lovers alike, there will be plenty of ways to read the book as autobiography. Jewish, redheaded, a former lawyer, not to mention a husband-obsessed emotional roller coaster, Emilia unavoidably evokes her author—and though Jack may practice corporate law, he looks an awful lot like Michael Chabon, with “snow-white” coloring and lips that “look like he’s wearing plum-colored lipstick.” But it would be a mistake to dismiss this book as a fictional variant of Waldman’s bad-mommy brand. In a first-person essay, a flawed narrator might raise hackles, but a novel offers bolder, more cunning opportunities—the chance for Waldman to make her case beyond the boundaries of mere likability.
Waldman isn’t one to lie low amid criticism—nor, it seems, is her husband. Chabon told Pages magazine, “Ayelet’s finest quality, and I’d like to send this one out to all those people who mocked her for supposedly revealing the details—you wish!—of our torrid sex life, is that, you know, she shakes me, baby … And she can tie a knot in a cherry stem with her tongue.”
Love and Other Impossible Pursuits
Doubleday. 352 pages. $23.95.