Review: Adrienne Brodeur’s ‘Wild Game’
Special to the Aspen Times
Adrienne Brodeur’s memoir begins with her mother, Malabar, waking the 14-year-old Adrienne in the middle of the night to tell her that she had just kissed her husband’s best friend. In the first flush of romantic excitement, Malabar takes her daughter into this confidence as if she was a peer and not a child hardly prepared to handle, let alone be party to, a parent’s infidelity.
Poor Adrienne had enough to sort out in her own life. It was only that same day that she had experienced her first orgasm and was trying to figure out how to manage a grabby boy. Nor did Malabar think better of the dalliance and confession to her daughter. That kiss initiated a long-term affair to which Adrienne would be more than privy; she would actively assist the lovers as they carried on their deception, creating opportunities for them to get time alone, or sometimes playing a phony chaperone. She lied for them, and also carried on her conscience the full weight of the deception.
This arrangement lasted into Adrienne’s young adulthood. It’s not until she reaches college age that a friend confronts her with a question that the reader has had in mind since the first pages: “What kind of person would do that to her daughter? And with her husband’s best friend? Jesus Christ. Your mother sounds like a piece of work.”
Indeed her mother was a piece of work, a master of psychological manipulation who secured her daughter’s complicity with conditional promises of love and approval, the emotional commodities most craved by the adolescent Adrienne. Her memoir is a study in the exploitation of a vulnerable child for the satisfaction of an adult’s ambitions. Malabar exhibited a wicked genius in persuading Adrienne of the morality of the affair, that she deserved to be happy after marrying a man who in recent years had been debilitated by a series of strokes.
“My mother,” she writes, “had chosen me, and, together, we were embarking on a great adventure.”
Adrienne did feel guilty about deceiving this step-father and about the shabby treatment of the wife of her mother’s lover, but Malabar held her captive with the mantra that they were “two parts of a whole.” Not surprisingly, Adrienne suffered from chronic stomach pain throughout her adolescence.
Once Adrienne left home and went to college, things got weirder and she grew more culpable in the cover-up and deceit as an adult.
Mother-and-daughter memoirs fill bookstore shelves these days, and their readers know to expect a measure of drama. Unlike many of these authors, Brodeur brings to the page years of editorial experience at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and was besides the daughter of Paul Brodeur, a New Yorker staff writer. So she knows how to make sentences. I was therefore initially perplexed by her tone. The emotional temperature is remarkably even throughout. Although she reports the mental and physical symptoms stemming from her own bad conscience and the head games played by her mother, we don’t see her in moments of acute anger or resentment or depression. There is no figurative or literal throwing of dishes against the wall. I am thinking by way of contrast of an essay by Meghan Daum in her book “The Unspeakable.” There Daum allows herself to rant a bit too long about how terrible her mother was, causing this reader to suspect that she still has some work to do with her therapist and that perhaps her essay would have been better after those sessions. Brodeur had already grappled with depression, alcohol abuse and a therapist by the time she sat down to write, and so was able to bring to the project a measure of equanimity. At the end of Malabar’s life, when all her games were played out and she attempted a kind of apology, Brodeur offers the cool assessment that “I knew Malabar loved me as much as she could love anyone,” which is to say, not very much. I appreciate this composure but wonder if some readers will miss the dish-throwing.
Brodeur’s memoir is a case study of how self-deception played out in two interconnected lives, each of which is attempting to satisfy their own emotional needs. An adolescent craves the approval of the parent, especially when she perceives in them glamor and professional success. Adrienne escaped the immaturity of her peer group and gained a sense of importance from her inclusion in an adult conspiracy. Malabar chased a notion of love and social status to which she felt entitled, no matter the cost to others. The core interest in Brodeur’s story is how human health — mental and physical — cannot tolerate the knowing perpetuation of a moral wrong over time. Alcohol or sex might deaden the pain of such a soul sickness, but the sufferer will eventually destroy herself unless she return to the headings of her own moral compass.
Timothy Brown writes on history, visual arts, and books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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The literary nonprofit Aspen Words is restarting its writers-in-residence program that had been on pause during the pandemic. Residents include “Call Me By Your Name” author André Aciman. Public events begin June 15.