Perhaps everyone has a memoir in them — but only some lives are instant and undeniable blockbusters. Adrienne Brodeur’s is one. In her memoir, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, out October 15 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Brodeur tells a story so extraordinary, so juicy, and so well that your only option is to buy copies for your friends, too.
When Brodeur was 14 years old, her mother, Malabar, woke her up in the middle of the night, and said the five words that changed everything: “Ben Souther just kissed me.” And then: “I don’t know what to do.” Malabar was having an affair with her husband’s married best friend, and her daughter would help her have it.
For the next decade, Brodeur would be her mother’s confidant, best friend, and enabler. Even as she grew older and more aware, Brodeur would struggle to escape from her charismatic, narcissistic mother’s needy love. The secrets governed her life long after she left the Massachusetts home where she grew up.
In Wild Game, Brodeur unspools those secrets in a story that sometimes resembles a Cape Cod-set soap opera, sometimes a taut five-person play (the kind where the audience remains silent throughout), and a twisted coming-of-age tale. Unsurprisingly, a book with this storm of dynamics was optioned for a movie back in 2018, set to be directed by Edge of Seventeen’s Kelly Fremon Craig.
The miracle of Wild Game is that Brodeur’s writing is as incredible as her story. Brodeur captures the emotional gradations in a tense room as deftly as she establishes the sea salt air and elaborate dinners of her childhood. Brodeur, the founder of the literary magazine Zoetrope: All Story and the executive director of a literary nonprofit, grew up surrounded by writers: Her father, Paul Brodeur, wrote for The New Yorker; Malabar was a columnist and cookbook author (her mouthwatering meals are rendered vividly in the book).
This very literary family gave her the fodder for what will undeniably be the book club pick of 2019. Wild Game is a book that inspires conversation — and here, we talk about the memoir with Brodeur herself, along with an exclusive excerpt from the Audible edition of Wild Game.
Refinery29: Why did you choose to begin Wild Game with the kiss?
Adrienne Brodeur: “This was one of those before and after moments. The proverbial, ‘Someone calls you after the car crash.’ My life changed immediately in that moment. I went to bed my mother’s daughter and I woke up her confidant and best friend. It was the thing that jettisoned me on the rest of this journey.”
When you first started writing, who were you writing for? What were your intentions?
“I was writing for myself. This material had been bubbling up in my system for a long time. When you write memoir it’s less about the events of your life and more about your awareness of them. I had been dealing with them on a personal level and frankly thought I had a great handle on them. It’s really when I started my own family that I realized I had work to do and reckoning to do. That which you don’t heal or address you pass along. I wrote it as part of my effort to really understand what had happened and what I wanted my future to look like.”
Did the memoir help you with that? Was it part of the healing process?
“Absolutely — in some very unexpected ways, too. One of the surprises about examining this episode of my life was the fact that the need on some level to forgive Malabar took a backseat to the need to understand her. In putting myself in my mother’s shoes, I developed empathy and compassion for her. What she did was not a healthy maternal choice. It was not good for me, but I felt like I understood it more. She went through trauma in her life that is unimaginable to me — losing a child, having your husband [Charles] have all these strokes.”
Do you hope that readers generate compassion for your mother even though she’s a polarizing figure?
“I’m trying to prepare myself. It’s the reader’s right to interpret. I know the book I wrote, and the heart which went behind it. I worked hard to portray my mother with a lot of depth. No part of me wanted to write a black-and-white portrayal of our relationship or of her. There was a beautiful Vivian Gornick line which was very inspiring to me. She said, ‘For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.’ I had that taped to my screen. I tried to honor that.”
Wild Game was supposed to be the name of the cookbook that Ben and Malabar worked on as an excuse to spend time together. It was never published — but now, it’s the name of your book about them. DId you always know this would be the title?
“I actually had a pretty lame working title which had infidelity in the title. It was writing that chapter when I am on the Cape Cod with my mother and she hatches the cookbook plan. And I’m like, duh. It was that obvious.”
In the book, you’re constantly scheming with your mother — and you’re good at it. Looking back, were you surprised by some of your actions?
“Absolutely. I had to deal with a lifetime of shame for much of those actions. These were not moments I’m proud of. When I first got involved, you think, What a horrible thing to put a child through. But it was all terribly exciting and adrenaline fueled. I was in my mother’s thrall. Most children crave their parents’ attention and love. I was no exception. The thing I most wanted to explore in the book is why I didn’t pivot away from that sooner, why I kept getting sucked back and drawn into the drama more and more.”
Are we destined to become our parents, or their opposites? Is there a third way?
“I think that's a great question, and it’s my most profound hope. For so much of my life, this story had so much power over me. It defined me. It controlled me. I think there is an agency and power and empowerment in owning it. By really going there, and not burying myself in the process. I do think I moved beyond it. Not entirely. I will be having conversations in my head with Malabar for decades and decades to come. I will not be passing along this inherited stuff to my daughter. That was my goal. Knowing it well enough to be aware and not inadvertently do harm or put myself first in the ways my mother treated me and how her mother treated her. If you don’t heal and address these things, you’re destined to pass them on.”
How are you planning to introduce this story to your daughter?
“I’ve talked to her quite a bit about it. I didn’t want her to be surprised by any of it. I don’t know if there will be a huge lesson for her to learn, because I hope it will be so far from her experience. One of the big jobs of a parent is to see a child’s strengths and weaknesses and help guide them, help provide that moral compass. Hopefully I’m doing a better job.”
Is that you on the cover?
“I was flipping through a collection of family photos of my mother’s. I saw that. I thought, when did that picture of Madeline, my daughter, get taken? Then I realized it was my mother. From that angle, it could be any one of us.”