When Emelia and Jack’s newborn baby daughter dies of SIDS, the distraught mother is caught in a complex web of grief and rage, a raw wound that renders her life unbearable. She is tortured daily by the sound of laughing children in Central Park, women crooning to their babies, new mothers jogging behind expensive baby strollers.
The author skillfully drives her protagonist’s dramatic denouement from the first page: every Wednesday Emelia picks up Jack’s five-year old son, William, from preschool, the reader immediately complicit with a distraught stepmother confronted with an intractable and overindulged William. The child becomes a focus for Emelia’s discontent, creating a battleground between Jack, Emelia and Jack’s controlling ex-wife, Carolyn, who is virulently opposed to Emelia’s every interaction with William.
Carolyn’s antipathy is understandable; Emelia is a home-wrecker, falling hopelessly in love with a very married man at the law firm where she was newly employed. In turn, Jack is torn between his passion for his new wife and his devotion to William, disturbed that the two people he loves most cannot seem to bond. That the five-year old boy is precocious with a genius IQ adds fuel to the fire: “It sometimes seems like William is Carolyn’s little mouthpiece, her surrogate goad.”
There are no innocents here save William, but Emelia carries more emotional baggage than most: unresolved issues with a philandering father and her heartbroken mother, guilt over breaking up Jack’s marriage and guilt over the death of her baby. Confused husband and angry ex-wife aside, this is Emelia’s battle, her demons old and new threatening her marriage and ability to bond with William.
Emelia is a complex mix of good intentions and human flaws, her actions both disturbing and memorable, her recent loss, conflicted relationship with stepson and husband and unresolved childhood issues all too familiar. As the story progresses, Emelia reveals the details of a painful childhood, her obsessive attachment to Jack from their first meeting and the aching grief that has all but destroyed her ability to function: “Why is it that loving something provides such little protection from betrayal?”
Finely wrought characters add another dimension to Emelia’s dilemma, revealing the shattered bits of personal history that have plunged her into an agony of despair. Their problems exacerbated by a shrewish Carolyn, Jack and Emelia cannot heal the loss of their infant while embroiled in an ongoing conflagration, William trapped in the middle of the adults’ dysfunction.
Combining the immediacy of unfathomable loss with the inherent problems of an extended family, Waldman portrays a young mother battling complicated desires, her life spiraling out of control. A recalcitrant child the vehicle for renouncing her self-imposed limitations, Emelia has a priceless opportunity to embrace an unencumbered future, no love or pursuit impossible.