Confession: I just might love Ayelet Waldman’s husband more than she does. And this is quite a claim, especially since Waldman wrote in The New York Times that she loves her spouse, Michael Chabon — the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” and the screenwriter of “Spider-Man 2” — more than she loves her children. After all, she explains, Chabon is the one who has sex with her every night.
Quite simply, I adore Chabon. His writing is pointed yet poetic, funny yet profound. Reading his books, I brim with a juvenile joy that I hope to never outgrow. He is the person in the world I’d most like to meet, the person whose brain I’d most like to have, the person whose words best render my world.
Quite psychotically, then, I am protective of our nonexistent relationship. Nobody, I like to think, understands him the way I do. Needless to say, I have greeted Waldman’s writing career with skepticism and jealousy. Isn’t it enough that they sleep together every night? It’s the most intimate thing two people can share! Did they need to share this, too?
Another confession: Waldman’s “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits” is actually, impossibly, wonderful.
Narrated by Emilia Greenleaf, a lively, likeable, Harvard Law School graduate, the novel’s sense and premise are familiar to anybody who has ever watched “Sex and the City.” Its sensibility, however, is far more complicated, and owes a debt to everyone from Jane Austen to Anne Tyler. This story is about marriage, motherhood and love, even if its hero is occasionally single and aggressively pursuing the ideal stiletto.
Intriguingly, the novel begins after Emilia has found her filched soulmate, who she stole from his current wife. “Jack was the first married man I ever dated,” Emilia explains before slowly revealing the sordid, surreptitious details of their office affair. When they meet, the unhappily married Jack was entering major midlife crisis mode.
“I am Jack’s red Porsche,” observes the astute Emilia.
Despite its base beginnings, Emilia and Jack’s love is total and true. According to Emilia, it throbs with majestic and mythic power. Jack is her intended. “I knew it from the first moment I saw him,” she says.
Their fairy tale life is undermined when their two-day-old baby, Isabel, dies of SIDS. Further compounding their marital woes is their affair’s collateral damage — Jack’s WASPy obstetrician ex-wife Carolyn and prodigiously brilliant toddler, William.
Waldman relays Isabel’s death, which occurs before the novel begins, through offhand remarks and elliptical flashbacks. On the first page, crossing Central Park to pick William up from school, a misanthropic Emilia avoids her neighbors and wonders. “Don’t they see that I am busy? Don’t they realize that obsessive self-pity is an all-consuming activity that leaves no room for conversation?”
In her grief, Emilia has built a shell that is only infiltrated by the petulant five-year-old William, who “sometimes sounds like a very small sixty-two-year-old man. Everyone finds these utterances of his very charming. His precocity is, by all accounts, enchanting.” But in taking a good look at her stepson, Emilia confesses, “I find William insufferable.”
For the reader, William is a delightfully entertaining invention. When Emilia attempts to endear herself to the child with interesting facts, he chillingly responds, “So it is.” William is, I repeat, five years old!
If this were not enough, he consumes lactose-free, strawberry-flavored, patisserie-quality cupcakes en masse.
Though inevitable, their reconciliation is far from predictable. As love — in its infinite permutations — courses through the novel, Emilia comes to the realization that “we do not love with magic. We love each other … with hard work and fear. With effort and misunderstanding.”
A final confession: Ultimately, Waldman has more in common with her husband than meets the eye. Although Chabon elevated comic books into high literature, his true achievement was transforming literature into comics. His novels, while grounded in history and real life, fully incorporate an adolescent’s caterpillar dreams of ecstatic fantasy and limitless escape.
Despite its charms, “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits” is just another small and sexy book: the simple story of the pampered denizens of the Upper West Side. But, like the cracked and crazed Central Park — which Emilia calls a metaphor for “grace” — Waldman’s novel is “more beautiful than we deserve, more elegant and lovely than it should be.”
In it, love remains, above all things, an epic, exclamatory force. And what could be more fantastic than that?