O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”
– Sir Walter Scott
There’s something about a good memoir that lures me into it in a way that fiction does not. I love reading first-hand accounts of challenge and triumph, and true stories that can help us understand ourselves, our cultures and humanity in general. Memoirs can also convince you that maybe your family isn’t so odd after all, as is the case with by Adrienne Brodeur’s “Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), an enthralling account of a family defined by one woman’s immense and all-consuming charisma.
Elegantly written, the title, alone, is a marvelous play on words. “Wild Game” is the name of a cookbook the author’s mother is writing about cooking wild animals. More to the point, it’s also a description of the wild game that is being played in the Brodeur’s family’s life.
The Brodeurs are highly privileged people. The mother, glamorous and spirited, is interestingly named Malabar and a food columnist for the Boston Globe. She’s renowned for the exquisite meals she makes in her summer home on Cape Cod. Her second husband, Charles, is Adrienne’s stepfather. He’s quiet, cerebral, kind and ever-so-rich coming from old Boston money. Every summer young Adrienne (“Rennie”) and her brother enjoy the freedom and beauty of life on the beach. Neighbors Ben and Lily Souther visit constantly to dine on Malabar’s delicious dinners and drink an abundance of alcohol. Charles and Ben have been best friends for 50 years; they have “hunted and fished together, dated each other’s sisters, been ushers at each other’s weddings, and become godfather to each other’s sons.” Adrienne knew them in the way that a child knows her parents’ friends, “which is to say not well and with indifference.”
Adrienne paints a blissful picture up until the summer of 1980 when she is a teenager. Malabar wakes her in the middle of the night after a dinner party. Breathless with excitement, she whispers: “Ben Souther just kissed me,” adding “I’m going to need your help, sweetie.” With those words, the mother and daughter’s lives forever changed, and the boundary between parent and child dissolves as that kiss becomes a long-term affair. Adrienne has examined this moment many times during her long hours in therapy, with hard-won wisdom: “This marked the beginning of the rest of my life,” and, at the age of 14, Adrienne’s childhood abruptly ended.
Adrienne adores her flamboyant mother and longs for her approval. She is thrilled, initially, to be recruited as Malabar’s confidante and accomplice, and she cheerfully lies to her stepfather so that the lovers can be together. She helps Malabar and Ben create alibis and arranges meetings on the Cape and in New York City. Although she enjoys her involvement in the affair, she can’t shake off a feeling that it’s wrong. Stepdad Charles is partially disabled after a stroke and Ben’s wife, Lily, has been scarred by treatment for cancer. Eventually Adrienne makes herself sick worrying that Charles and her brother will find out and that Malabar and Ben will give themselves away. She begs them not to be so “obvious,” but the liaison goes on for years, and deceit becomes a way of life. Malabar makes Adrienne promise to take “the secret” to her grave.
By the time she is 17, Adrienne knows she has to get away, to be something more than her mother’s enabler. She takes a gap year before college and goes to Hawaii but even with thousands of miles between them, Malabar keeps her ensnared in her web. The couple are waiting for their spouses to die, but this doesn’t happen for years, and their affair becomes harder and harder to hide. The immense cruelty of involving her daughter in this scheme, driving a wedge between her and everyone else in her life, was never bothered Malabar. “Remember, we are two halves of one whole,” she told her daughter, calling her back from Hawaii. “Please don’t ever do that again,” her mother begs her on her return. “I felt like I was missing a limb without you.”
Adrienne eventually makes herself into a successful writer and editor; in 1997, with Francis Ford Coppola, she founded the fiction magazine “Zoetrope: All-Story.” She writes with empathy and kindness about her mother and her troubled past: her explosive, alcoholic parents; the death of her first child; her divorce from Adrienne’s father. However, for the reader, it’s hard to get past Malabar’s selfishness and its shattering effect on her daughter’s life. Constantly striving to win her mother’s love and affection, Adrienne willingly became a pawn in the wild game Malabar was playing, a game that survived a blackmail attempt by Charles’s home care assistant, Malabar’s reckless revelations to her friends and Charles’s death. Adrienne’s romantic life was hopelessly entwined with Ben and Malabar after she began a relationship with Ben and Lily’s adopted son Jack, who knew nothing about the cheating couple’s relationship, or Adrienne’s involvement in it. After she married Jack, Ben and Malabar finally wed, and her husband became her stepbrother. Overwhelmed by guilt and self-doubt, Adrienne fell into a deep depression, as the years of drama and secrecy took their toll.
“Wild Game” is nonfiction that reads like a novel. The writing is lovely and sensual – spicy combo of hot summers, exquisite meals and illicit encounters as the characters that Adrienne Brodeur describes so vibrantly set about destroying marriages, friendships and relationships. This memoir that will keep you hooked until the last page.