Reviewed by Jessica Withers
Being a stepmother is one of the most difficult roles a woman can choose—my sister stepmoms will agree with that. Then stir in guilt because you know that you caused the breakup of your husband’s first marriage, sprinkle in a five-year-old stepson who “accurately estimates your body mass index while you are halfway through a piece of chocolate cheesecake,” and top with the death of your newborn daughter from SIDS. Whew, makes my stepmother trials pale in comparison! But that is the life of Emilia Greenleaf Woolf, protagonist of Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Other Impossible Pursuits.
Emilia struggles through the typical stepmom problems. While her husband works, she is the one who picks her stepson up from nursery school once a week, braving the stares and whispers of the other mothers who treat her as a pariah. She thinks “a better stepmother” would have “figured out a series of fascinating ways to pass the time” with William, and the stress has caused her to start grinding her teeth at night. She accepts William’s criticisms of her as punishment for breaking up his family. Almost without thinking of it, though, Emilia also does many of the things that will help strengthen this new family: she introduces William to things she is interested in, things which he might not have been introduced to otherwise; she shares her favorite places in New York City with him; she takes the time to illustrate just how wide-ranging life can be. She also finds ways to connect with William alone.
William’s character is more fully drawn than any other one in the book, except Emilia’s. At five, he is precocious and opinionated, physically awkward and mentally sharp. Like other stepchildren, he parrots his mother’s opinions while at his father’s house. He has learned how to manipulate situations between his father and his stepmother, turning an accident into a drama-filled scene. Don’t think you couldn’t love William, though, for he is the hero of this book. It is through his actions that Emilia’s life is redeemed, via the ex-wife. The meeting between the two women is no act of reconciliation, rather an act of graciousness instigated by William’s defense of Emilia.
Though Emilia jumps into her role as wife with more excitement than her role as stepmother, when she finally embraces this part of her life she does it whole-heartedly. She tries to find ways to make William’s life a little brighter, working with his personality rather than against it. In the midst of a family crisis, Emilia is the only one who can help William. And she does so with a skill and empathy to be admired. By the end of the novel, Emilia is comfortable in herself and in her role as stepmother.
I have approached Love and Other Impossible Pursuits from a stepmother point-of-view, leaving out other crucial plot lines. Written with skill, Ayelet Waldman has Emilia’s sharp voice speak things we stepmothers usually keep secret—“I never meant to feel this way about this child. My assumption was that I would love him. I love the father so very much; it seemed inevitable…” This is a story of how easy it is to convince ourselves that the way we see things is The Truth and how love, sometimes from the most unlikely of sources, can set us free from our “Truths.”
We stepmothers read and research a lot! Read Love and Other Impossible Pursuits as a break from non-fiction. Read it to comfort yourself that stepchildren do pay attention to their stepmothers, even if it doesn’t seem that way. Read it because it has been filmed and you should always read the book before you watch the movie. Whatever leads you to read Love and Other Impossible Pursuits make sure you have tissues nearby because it will touch your heart.
About Jessica Withers
Jessica has been in a stepmother role to 3 children for almost 2 years. She has recently started a Stepmom Support Group for stepmoms in Tompkin’s County. She has worked in public and academic libraries for over nineteen years.