Ayelet Waldman

"Love and Other Impossible Pursuits"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky JAN 29, 2006)

“Love and marriage are about work and compromise.  They’re about seeing someone for what he is, being disappointed, and deciding to stick around anyway.” 

Thirty-year old Emilia Greenleaf Woolf is a home wrecker in Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman.  She falls for Jack Woolf, a married partner in the Manhattan law firm where she works, and they embark on an affair that destroys Jack’s marriage.  Jack’s ex-wife, Carolyn, agrees to joint custody of their son, William, a self-centered, neurotic, and annoyingly precocious little boy. Emilia, who is the novel’s first person narrator, candidly admits, “I find William insufferable.”

When Emilia becomes pregnant, she is elated, but shockingly, her baby daughter dies shortly after she is born.  This tragedy sends Emilia into an emotional tailspin that lasts for months.  She is angry at herself and cannot bear the sight of babies in strollers, children in playgrounds, and young mothers happily bonding with one another.  Emilia detests Carolyn, who treats William like a fragile piece of porcelain, and she even harbors an irrational resentment towards Jack for placidly “handling” her during her orgy of grief.  Why doesn’t Jack just bark at her to snap out of it already?  Most of all, Emilia hates herself, for allowing her baby to die.  The sickness in her soul poisons her relationship with William and threatens to ruin the most important thing in her life—her marriage.

The author takes the reader on a guided tour of the circumscribed world of Manhattan’s overprivileged parents who buy their children every superfluous material object on the market.  They plan their babies’ college educations while they are still in the womb.  These people don’t take subways; they take taxicabs.  They work at high-powered jobs while nannies feed and dress the kids, ferry them to private schools, and escort them to play dates.

Waldman wisely humanizes Emilia, who is selfish, tactless, immature, and unforgiving.  However, she is also achingly vulnerable, and the reader roots for her to grow up and face life more realistically.  Emilia’s parents are divorced after many bitter years of matrimony, and their story is complex and heartrending, as well. However, some of the other characters are not as well developed.  Jack seems incredibly forbearing and tolerant throughout most of the story, and Carolyn’s behavior is too obnoxious to be believed. 

Where the author does shine is in her description of Emilia’s emotions in the months following her baby’s death.  With beautifully etched and finely tuned prose, Waldman perfectly captures a bereaved mother’s bitterness and her inability to go on with any semblance of a normal routine when her world has stopped.  The scenes in which Emilia vainly attempts to relate to her stepson are darkly humorous and poignant.  On one occasion, she even slips the child a dairy food to prove that he is not lactose intolerant, as his mother claims. 

Waldman paints on a broad canvas that encompasses the affection and/or resentment that people feel towards parents, siblings, spouses and ex-spouses, children, and stepchildren.  Although Emilia blames herself for her failures, Waldman shows that recriminations for past misdeeds are ultimately fruitless.  None of us passes through life unscathed.  We all hurt others and are hurt in return.  As Emilia navigates the “impossible pursuit” of loving and being loved, coping with a terrible loss, and coming to terms with the many things in her life that she cannot change, readers will sympathize with her struggle.  Except for the slightly pat ending, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits feels natural and unforced, flowing briskly and effortlessly.  It is a sensitive, funny, and moving story that will appeal to a wide audience.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 80 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Love and Other Impossible Pursuits at author's website

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About the Author:

Ayelet WaldmanAyelet Waldman was born in Jerusalem, Israel and grew up in Northern New Jersey. She is a graduate of Wesleyan University and of the Harvard Law School. She spent three years working as a Federal Public Defender in the Central District of California.

Her novel Daughter's Keeper was inspired by her drug policy reform work and the many defendants in drug cases whom she represented while working as a federal public defender. The novel was a finalist for the Northern California Book Prize.

Ayelet is an adjunct professor at the Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley, where she teaches an upper level seminar on the legal and social implications of the war on drugs. She is also a columnist for Salon.com.

Ayelet and her husband, Michael Chabon, live in Berkeley, California with their four children.

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