'Wild Game' Author Adrienne Brodeur Knows A Thing Or Two About Complicated Mothers
"Deception takes commitment, vigilance, and a very good memory," Adrienne Brodeur writes in the prologue to her memoir, Wild Game. "To keep the truth buried, you must tend to it."
This is not a philosophical observation, but one she writes from experience. Deception began coursing through her veins in July 1980, when, at the age of 14, she was awoken in the middle of the night by her mother, Malabar, who confessed to her that she had just been kissed by her husband's best friend, called Ben Souther in the book. After that night, Brodeur became her mother's closest confidant and most devoted co-conspirator. "I awoke fizzy with elation, buoyed by the joy in my mother's voice, still drunk on the intimacy of our exchange," she writes. "Malabar had chosen me, and my body vibrated with an ineffable sense of opportunity."
The affair was kept afloat for decades through a devious scheme: Malabar, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, and Ben, an avid hunter, would write a cookbook of wild game recipes. He would kill; she would cook. The cookbook never manifested, but the wild game continued — with assistance from Brodeur.
As the years passed, the fizz of elation flattened. Once intoxicated by her mother's affection, Brodeur, now an adult, became exhausted, depressed, and regretful of her role in maintaining her mother's affair and in deceiving her stepfather — a kind, bookish man who was partially paralyzed after suffering a series of strokes shortly before his marriage to Malabar.
"I didn't want to sort of portray myself as innocent, because one of the big questions I asked myself is, 'Why did I stay involved?' I understand and forgive myself for the beginning of it, when I was a child and I was in my mother's thrall," Brodeur tells me. "I was completely devoted to her, and honestly, I just wanted her to be happy."
The shame of her complicity deepened when she inconveniently fell in love with Ben Souther's son, called Jack in the book. She married him, but only after the affair became public and any chance at a normal family dynamic was forever ruined. (Brodeur previously wrote about her marriage to Jack, which has since ended, in a Modern Love column for The New York Times.)
Yes, it sounds like a CW reboot of Gossip Girl, set between Cape Cod and New York City, but I assure you, this is real life, and it's as juicy and delicious to read as Malabar's meals were, undoubtedly, to eat. But this isn't mindless drama. Wild Game is an honest reckoning of a dishonest time, a loving but critical portrait of a woman who prioritized her own happiness above all else, and an insightful retrospective of the author's complicity in an all-consuming lie. It is the first book for Brodeur, who has over 20 years of experience in the literary and publishing worlds, but hopefully not the last: She is a gifted writer, with a particular talent for narrative flow. The story never lets up, and you won't want to put it down.
Below, listen to an excerpt of the Wild Game audiobook, narrated by Julia Whelan, and read Adrienne Brodeur on why now was the right time to write this book, why readers are so drawn to stories about complicated mothers, and what her own daughter thought of the book:
Why did you feel like now was the the right time to write this book?
Adrienne Brodeur: I think some part of me has been noodling around in this territory for years and years and years, but it was actually when I started a family and had my own children that I realized — despite how much I thought I had processed all of this and taken care of it in therapy and through great talks with friends and reading and all the rest — that I was thinking a lot about the things we pass along to our children without really realizing we're passing them along. I did not want to mother as I had been mothered. And I felt like I really needed to reckon with my past, and the decision was to face it head on in a memoir.
The Modern Love column you wrote about marrying the man who would become your stepbrother is really funny! It's really light-hearted. There is humor and levity in this book, too, but the tone is generally more serious. Why did you kind of choose to make that change in tone for the memoir?
I think I tried for many years to handle the situation or write about the situation with humor. I think it was a defensive mechanism. I mean, I actually dropped it into a romantic comedy that went nowhere in the end. Did you see that comedy — Nanette?
Yes, I did.
You can often use humor as a way to deflect real pain, and I think that that was what I was doing a little bit in the Modern Love column, and certainly in the rom-com screenplay. At some point, I realized that that wasn't the way to tackle this, that the longer we sort of suppress or deny these stories, the more that they control us and define us. It wasn't until I sort of faced it directly, that I think I've been able to move beyond it a bit.
In the author's note at the beginning, you write about how in memoir, the facts can only take you so far and you have to fall back upon memory, despite knowing that it's imperfect and subjective. Was that terrifying to accept?
Absolutely. In memoir, the past is always with you. The past is prologue. It's never going anywhere, but it's less about the events of your life, than about how you process those events and your consciousness about those events. That's what's important in memoir. That's what makes it different than just the litany of terrible things that can happen to a person.
The book is very, very much centered on your mother Malabar, who is a compelling, complicated woman. I'm sure readers are going to have a lot of opinions about her. You write in the book and you've said in interviews that you believe your mom was pretty narcissistic. Yet, she's your mom and you love her and she had many wonderful qualities, too. Were you worried about the way that people would perceive her in reading this book?
Absolutely. It might have been one of my biggest concerns. Hopefully, most readers can tell from reading the book that I absolutely love my mother. I really endeavored to paint a portrait in a way that wasn't all black and white; no part of me wanted to write a "Mommy Dearest" style book. That wasn't how our relationship was, and it really wasn't who she was.
"In memoir, the past is always with you. The past is prologue."
Despite some dubious maternal instincts, she was actually very loving and warm and had a lot of great attributes. I think one of the writers who helped me most with this was Vivian Gornick. There's a line in her memoir, The Situation and the Story, in which she writes about how to deepen the drama in personal narrative. I'm going to botch this a little bit, but the essence of it was you have to show "the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent." I thought that that was so helpful to create a nuanced portrait of someone and of a relationship and that was what I was endeavoring to do here.
I imagine there will be many comments coming in from people who also have complicated relationships with their mothers. Is that something that you considered?
Absolutely. [...] I thought I'd written such a singular and specific and slightly odd story that I didn't think it was going to resonate. I mean, how many other people are complicit in their parents' affairs? Yet, when I went around and met with publishing houses, everyone wanted to talk to me about their relationship with their mother.
Even if their relationship wasn't the same as mine, the relationship is so powerful and so primary and there are such boundary issues that even if it wasn't the same, there was so much to compare it to and to consider. I hope that it will help other people who have these really complicated childhoods and relationships to know that you can get beyond them.
Why do think people are so hungry for these stories of complicated mother-daughter relationships?
It's just such a primary relationship, right? I mean, that's the person you mirror. They gave birth to you. I don't think there's ever, in my life, been been a relationship that's been as primary or powerful. I'm married to a wonderful man. I have two amazing children. But when I wake up in the loop in the middle of the night, it is almost always because I'm thinking of something to do with my mother and my childhood. I think that's true for a lot of people.
Do you think that writing this book has helped in that respect?
Definitely. I don’t know if it’s in our country or in our society or what exactly, but I feel like there's this real desire for closure. I feel like the past is always our past — it’s prologue, it's there, it's in our DNA, we drag it along with us. I think I'll probably be having conversations with my mother long after she goes.
"That's the person you mirror. They gave birth to you. I don't think there's ever, in my life, been been a relationship that's been as primary or powerful."
One of the best things that happened in writing this book is my heart expanded. I feel like writing allowed me to step into her shoes and become truly empathetic as to what her life was like, which was extremely difficult. She had two narcissistic, alcoholic parents. They had been married and divorced — to each other —by the time she was in high school. She found out about a secret half-family. She really suffered. Not that that makes everything she did later OK, but it certainly made me understand it more.
Do you think that this is a book that you could have written any sooner than when you did?
I doubt it. I tried in different ways for many years.
After moving to California, an agent met with me and asked, "Tell me what you're thinking of doing." And I told her, "Oh, I’ve sort of got these two ideas for books in my head." One of them was a light-hearted novel and the other was this book.Very luckily, she said, "Oh, let's do the light-hearted novel.” Honestly, I feel so grateful to have had sort of 15 more years to let all this marinate.
Ben Souther has died, but your mom is still alive, though she is quite sick. Has she read any of Wild Game?
I talked to her about it before I started the book, and she gave me her blessing to go ahead and work on it. Probably about a year or so ago, when I was in the thick of writing, I read her chunks of it. She was already starting to become sick was certainly in the early stages of dementia, but I can tell you she definitely enjoyed a lot of the parts that I read her, especially the cooking parts, the times when she was a much more powerful woman than she is today. At this point, she's not able to read, and I don't think she could sort of hold this narrative in her head, even if it was her own life. So, that part will remain a mystery.
I saw on Instagram that your daughter also read some of it. What was that like?
She picked up the book, which was a really sort of fun moment of the summer. I came out of the bedroom, and there she was on the sofa, the sun rising and glistening, and she's reading the book.
I've been very open with her about what the story is, and the book is available to her. But — in the best possible way — I haven't seen her with it since then. And what I meant by "the best possible way" is I don't think she’s too curious about my inner life. She's a teenager, and she's got a lot going on, which is as I always dreamed it would be. I do not want my daughter to be as I was at 14, obsessed with my mother's life. I think she enjoyed it. She said as much, but I don't think she's finished it. And that is OK with me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clariy.
You can now order Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur.