Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me By Adrienne Brodeur
Reviewed by Cathi Hanauer
At the opening of Adrienne Brodeur’s fastpaced and evocative memoir, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, Brodeur ’s stepfather’s lifelong friend, Ben Souther, bursts like a strapping Santa Claus into the beautiful Cape Cod beachfront home where her mother, Malabar, and her stepfather, Charles, await. Ben holds high a brown paper grocery bag, damp with what turns out to be blood; inside are the dozen squab he’s just slaughtered. “Let’s see what you can do with these, Malabar,” Ben booms, presenting the bag. His longtime wife, Lily—ten years older and a thousand times less demanding and alluring than Malabar—follows quietly behind him, bearing homegrown flowers and watercress; from her angle, she misses the long, appraising, ultimately impressed look her young friend fixes on her— Lily’s—husband.
In no time, Malabar, the “five-star general” of her huge, stunning kitchen, has whipped up a mouthwatering feast, which Ben proclaims “perfection.” Wine flows; the ocean swells in the background; animals alive just hours ago are devoured by ravenous humans; flirting and conversation wax and wane and wax again, everyone wrapped up in their own forms of pleasure. Brodeur, fourteen and tipsy from the wine she’s been served, heads off to the beach, where she experiences her first taste of sex; later, home again and drifting to sleep, she feels newly enlightened to the powers of her body. But in the middle of that night, her mother jars her awake. “Ben Souther just kissed me!” Malabar confesses, joy and excitement oozing off her. She tells her daughter he’s invited her to meet him in New York next week, then says, “I’m going to need your help, sweetie. I need to figure out how to do this.”
With those words, Malabar ensnares Brodeur, at the very time when mother and daughter should be separating, as a thrilled accomplice in her ongoing adultery and deception—a trap and situation that will have a profound impact on the author’s life. Describing the trajectory and roller coaster of her first few decades—years ruled by divorce, instability, and this secret she shared with her deeply narcissistic mother—Brodeur attempts to answer the central questions of love, family, and life: What do we owe our loved ones—parents, children, spouses, even siblings? Do our marital vows compel us to stay together until death do us part—or allow us to leave if the feelings are no longer there? Is love something that simply happens to us, or something we can, or should, try to control? Which is “right”: to be true to our partners, or true to ourselves? At what point are we responsible for our own moral failings, even if those failings are encouraged by our parents?
Writing this from the safe distance of her fifties, stepfather Charles now dead and mother Malabar in her eighties and suffering from dementia, Brodeur moves forward from that pivotal night into Part Two of her young life, in which she revels in her role of best friend and favored child to her headstrong, boundary-less, morally bankrupt mother. Born on the birthday of Malabar’s first child, a boy who died tragically at age 2, Brodeur suddenly has a way to not only earn legitimacy in her mother’s eyes, but also to supersede her living older brother, Peter. Whether she’s helping scheme ways for Ben and Malabar to be together, skipping days of college to help her mother weasel out of their affair being discovered, or (yes) actually marrying Ben’s son, Jack, in her early twenties, and even then keeping her knowledge of their parents’ affair from him, Brodeur allows her mother’s presence, needs, and desires to dictate and supplant her own (“My mother’s broken heart felt like my own,” she writes), becoming, unsurprisingly, as morally questionable as her mother. “In our family,” she tells us, “being right trumped being truthful.” It’s not until Part Three of her life—with help from her father’s third wife, Margot, and the piles of books she lovingly pushes on the author—that Brodeur starts to see clearly what’s been going on and attempts to extricate from it and come into herself. But not before sinking dangerously close to rock bottom.
Brodeur’s writing is passionate, sensual, and often deceptively simple. She culls gorgeous details of Cape Cod, with its screeching terns and “bluefish blitz[es],” its low-tide displays of “horseshoe crabs coupling” and “moon snails pushing plow-like across the sandy bottom” of the bay, to make the setting as much a character in this drama as the humans inhabiting it. Food also plays a central role, with Ben’s and Malabar’s gleeful partnered capturing, cooking, and devouring of sea, land, and sky creatures serving as the perfect metaphor for their destruction and disregard of their human families. Whether coating live minnows with seasoned flour before tossing “still wriggling” fistfuls of them into a sizzling hot pan or trapping angry lobsters in inches of boiling water to steam them (“Ben slapped down the top with a bang and held it in place as the lobsters thrashed for a minute before the steam quieted them permanently”), as presented by Brodeur, the two blaze along wreaking havoc on those they once loved and leaving destruction in their wake; if each shows the occasional moment of guilt, these moments, particularly in contrast to the author’s deep soul-searching about her own role in all this, are fleeting before it’s back to the business of meeting their own voracious desires and appetites.
Occasionally Brodeur’s omissions, though they kept me turning pages, left me wanting a bit more; toward the end, she refers almost in passing to her “own checkered history of love affairs and infidelities” as well as to her habit of (self) cutting, and while a line about the latter was enough in a memoir this broad, the former took me a bit by surprise coming so late and minimally. (Wait—what affairs?!) Too, the writing can veer into cliché: someone “stand[ing] outside of time,” “look[ing] mindfully for a new path,” or, the cliché du jour, “not feeling known.” And occasional sentimentality— “milk-drunk babies,” “lanky children … running full tilt across the sand”—stood out like, well, bright plastic beach toys on perfect white sand. But these minor details displeased only because so much of the writing is literary; whether recounting her joy at returning to sordid New York, with its “messy velocity,” after years of feeling displaced in sunny San Diego, or describing the insect perfectly trapped within the “cube of amber” on her psychiatrist’s desk (“‘Stupid beetle,’” I thought”), Brodeur shows herself a worthy descendant of her family of writers, including a father who worked for The New Yorker.
Though this memoir is being billed first as a mother-daughter story, what interests me most is how it depicts both the strengths and the frailty of marriage. Ben and Lily stay together even though he’s mostly deaf and she, due to earlier illness, literally barely has a voice. Yet how “together” are they when he’s lying to her and sleeping with someone else? Would she be better off if he left? Would Charles, if Malabar ditched him to be with Ben? That’s something you could ask a million people and get a million different answers—or at least two. Malabar, predictably, felt “not one whit of guilt” about the affair. “‘Here’s how you need to think about it, Rennie,’” she tells Brodeur. “‘Ben and I didn’t mean to fall in love. It just happened. The important thing is that we have chosen to put Charles and Lily first. Neither of us wants to hurt them. You understand that, right?’” She adds that by not divorcing their spouses and instead having this illicit affair, “…Ben and I are acting altruistically here. As are you, sweetie.’” At last, Brodeur writes, “I understood the immensity of my mother and Ben’s sacrifice. The plan was to wait for Lily and Charles to die. It was the narrative they’d settled on. At the time, it struck me as noble and even kind.”
It would take many years and lots of help for Brodeur to develop the backbone and principles her family deprived her of. But in the end, she can still deceive guiltlessly when it’s warranted: Reading from the book to her elderly, only semi-aware mother, Brodeur chooses passages that depict Malabar as “a powerful woman who went after all that she wanted” while “skip[ping] over the parts where she failed me.” It’s a fitting finale; the once indomitable woman who’s spent her life deluding and overpowering those who are weaker is now weak and deceived herself—and on display for the world to judge.
Cathi Hanauer is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels and two anthologies, including The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth about Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage and The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, which was an NPR Best Book of 2016. She and her husband started the New York Times “Modern Love” column.