A Mother’s Secrets, a Daughter’s Lies

My Mother, Her Lover, and Me
By Adrienne Brodeur

Near the end of Adrienne Brodeur’s exquisite and harrowing memoir, she makes this powerful statement: “Malabar was the only mother I had, but she was not the mother I wanted to be.” “Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me” tells the story of the author’s long, complicated and ultimately successful struggle to extract herself from her charismatic mother — a textbook narcissist for whom “love was conditional” — to become a different kind of partner, person and parent. The book is so gorgeously written and deeply insightful, and with a line of narrative tension that never slacks, from the first page to the last, that it’s one you’ll likely read in a single, delicious sitting.

It is a painful fact of human nature that the people to whom we bond most quickly and completely — our parents — are those who can inflict the most lasting harm. And Brodeur’s mother, as befits her uniquely glamorous name, is truly spectacular. The first time we see “Malabar in action,” it is as the “five-star general” in the kitchen of the family’s picturesque Cape Cod summer home, hours before “the happy creak of corks announced that dinner was ready.” Malabar is “unwrapping the headless birds, lining them up on the countertop and blotting their cavities dry with a fresh dishtowel” while her husband, Charles — Brodeur’s beloved stepfather — “stands on the sidelines” and the dinner guests, soused after a “sacred” cocktail hour, look on in anticipation. One of the guests, Ben Souther, will be Malabar’s lover for years. And the accomplice who makes the affair possible? Brodeur herself.

On the night Malabar confesses her attraction to Ben to her daughter, then 14, she says: “I’m going to need your help, sweetie. I need to figure out how to do this. How to make this possible.” A ridiculous, hideous request, and of course there’s only one way Brodeur, whose goal in life has been and will continue to be making her mother happy, can respond: Yes. “Joy had fallen from the night sky and landed in my mother’s voice,” Brodeur explains, and she is consumed with keeping it there. For decades, when other young girls are coming into their own understanding of their likes and dislikes, Brodeur is becoming an expert liar and gobbling Tums like candy from the stress. She lies to Charles, she lies to her brother and, most disastrously, she lies to herself. “I knew only what pleased my mother,” Brodeur writes. “I didn’t have a moral compass. … Starting when I was 14, what made my mother happy was Ben Souther. With that, my lying took a dark turn. Lies of omission became lies of commission. What began as choice turned into habit and became my conscience’s muscle memory.”

The difference between the two men in Malabar’s orbit is dramatic: “Ben’s hands chopped wood, built fences, deftly killed animals of every sort. Charles’s hands were baby-soft, his right one lacking dexterity since his stroke.”

All the robust and lively characters in this book are New York City-Boston-Cape Cod-dwelling WASPs who, as Brodeur explains, never discussed the word privilege or its meaning, but instead “lived off the vapors of family wealth, maintained appearances and drank copiously.”

The book’s title comes from the wild game of the decades-long deception (the mysterious “clamming” adventures and walks when Ben and Malabar would sneak off), as well as a cookbook idea that necessitated frequent meetings between Ben and Malabar to experiment with potential recipes, when “the hypnotic hiss of fat dripping onto coals was the backdrop to almost every meal.” Some of the best descriptions are food-related, particularly this passage revealing the clandestine couple’s serious and sexy approach to surf and turf. “Together, my mother and Ben shucked oysters, plucked feathers from mallards, ripped innards out of delicate woodland creatures. Their patter was filled with pornographic double-entendres about the game they roasted, the savory loins, luscious breasts, tender thighs. … They slurped clams from their shells, gnawed on bones and sucked out the marrow.”

As she enters young adulthood, Brodeur tries to separate from her mother, but she doesn’t know how; the pull of Malabar’s affection and approval (and the pain of losing both) is as strong as an undercurrent. Brodeur spends time as a Hawaiian stoner, floats through college and eventually enters an ill-fated yet loving marriage with Ben Souther’s son, of all people, a union her mother manages to make more about her than about her only daughter.

Finally Brodeur, in the midst of a suffocating depression, decides to explore an artistic career: “The thought of pursuing a creative life in whatever way I could made me happier than I’d felt in years.” Eventually, this leads to a founding position at Francis Ford Coppola’s culturally influential literary magazine, Zoetrope: All Story. The chapters in which Brodeur is making her way in New York and working long hours at a job she loves are some of the most poignant. “Follow your bliss” is a popular catchphrase, but Brodeur shows how much work and humility it takes to keep moving toward joy — doggedly, consistently, observantly. Readers will cheer for her when she starts reading deeply, helped by a kind stepmother who invites her to be in conversation with books that will teach her about the power of her own mind, a therapist who pushes her and the love of a friend who holds up a mirror in which Brodeur sees a new reflection of herself instead of her mother.

It’s that new vision of herself that Brodeur integrates fully in the powerful penultimate scene, at the birth of her own daughter. She realizes that she must chart a new path, and that — with the love of her husband and friends — she can. And she does. This triumphant moment shows what a good memoir can do, using one person’s singular experience to shed light on a fundamental truth of being human. In this case: maternal love, that most primal and powerful kind.

On that fateful night when the author’s mother tells her, “You must take this secret to your grave,” the die, it seems, is cast. It is the great gift of this book — and of Brodeur’s life — that she refuses to do so. She does not reject her mother, who lives now with dementia, but neither does she become her or soft-pedal the ways in which Malabar continues to wound her. Brodeur’s message is poignant and profound: A person need not totally untangle from her family — a group of people with shared DNA that none of us chooses — but neither must she stay unconsciously tethered to them or repeat inherited patterns of relationship. Family holds the ties that bind, but even if you do not wholly reject it, you do not, as Brodeur’s book gloriously proves, have to stay hopelessly, miserably bound.

Emily Rapp Black’s latest book, “Sanctuary,” will be published in 2021.

My Mother, Her Lover, and Me
By Adrienne Brodeur
237 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.

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