Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman

Whaddya mean, my five-year-old's a loser?
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The Independent Culture

Despite the uninspired title, Waldman hooks us from page one. Jewish New York attorney Emilia is besotted with her sexy husband Jack. But she's less than keen on her precocious stepson, a five-year-old easily mistaken for "a very small 62-year-old man". William is an annoyingly brainy boy who debates whether Pluto should have been reclassified as part of the Kuiper belt of objects, ponders the danger of using public transport during the flu season and estimates your Body Mass Index while you're gorging on chocolate cake. On Wednesdays, when Emilia looks after this pint-size know-all, she repeatedly screws up, abusing his lactose intolerance with dairy products and accidentally knocking him into the freezing-cold Harlem Meer in Central Park.

Carolyn (the glamorous first wife) informs her and half of Manhattan that she should be arrested for child abuse, while Emilia rages at her father for betraying her mother with a teenage Russian stripper. Emilia is suffering from the recent cot death of her own baby, and William is doing a fine job of reminding her that "not only am I not his mother but I am nobody's mother at all."

Stuffed with screamy emotions and deep feelings, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits builds to a predictable Hollywood ending. However, Waldman tells it with a wittiness and pace which never slacken. She is playfully astute about cliquey professional moms dressed in "crumpled comfort at a four-figure price", the sister with a social conscience whose thermostat is set at 62 degrees and whose friends are "meticulously assorted and multihued" and the Croatian nanny who speaks impeccable English, but only in the present tense. Best of all is her depiction of Carolyn, tyrannising Jack and Emilia with her phone calls and exploding into emotional meltdown when her son fails - at five - to get into a top school.

Occasionally Waldman's writing seems journalistic, over-using repetition to stress a point. Shes fond, too, of one-liners. But her descriptions of Central Park sensitively mirror Emilia's depression: trees "poke at the dreary sky with lifeless branches that have lost not just their leaves, but the very hope of leaves".

For all its slickness, this novel has poignant moments - Emilia lactating at her baby's funeral; William, caught in the crossfire of an adult row, standing "hands balled up in fists and pressed into his cheeks". Waldman conveys Emilia's crippling grief and guilt powerfully. How can Emilia forgive other children for living while her own daughter is "nothing but a frozen memory, stiff and cold, her tongue curled out of the corner of her mouth, her breath forever stilled in her chest"? After all, she's a mother.

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