Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur review – Mum’s little helper… with a difference

A daughter’s complicity in her mother’s secret adulterous affair is gruesomely fascinating

One summer night in 1980, Adrienne Brodeur was woken up by her self-obsessed, larger-than-life mother, Malabar; Adrienne was then a 14-year-old schoolgirl, her mother a cookery writer in her late 40s. What was the problem? In a state of high excitement, Malabar whispered her confession: “Ben Souther just kissed me.” Sounding like a teenager, she repeated herself: “I still can’t believe it. He kissed me, Rennie.”

In the seconds that followed, a Faustian pact was struck between parent and child. Brodeur tacitly agreed to help facilitate the affair on which her mother was about to embark, even though the man in question was her beloved stepfather’s best friend. “You deserve this,” she reassured Malabar, as if they were college friends talking of new boyfriends over a bottle of cheap chardonnay. In return, she was duly elevated to the position of Malabar’s confidante-in-chief, a role she longed for, in spite of the likelihood that it would involve lying to everyone. How else could she hope to get nearer to the centre of Malabar’s world?

The next day, she offered her first piece of assistance, enabling her mother to slip away from her stepfather, Charles, and Ben Souther from his wife of 35 years, Lily. “Who wants to go clamming?” she called out, knowing full well that only two of the four adults present would be tempted by the prospect. Out on the Cape Cod marshes, Brodeur looked at her mother and Souther, their heads dipped together, and understood there was now no going back.

Malabar’s affair would continue for the next decade. Born, at least in part, of the physical frailties of their respective partners – Charles had suffered a series of strokes even before Malabar married him; Lily was ever delicate, having been treated for cancer – it was acted out not only clandestinely, in a series of New York hotel rooms, but also in plain sight of their families during weekends on Cape Cod. Malabar even came up with the idea of a cookbook – Wild Game – on which the two couples would work together (Souther was a keen hunter). The plan was not to hurt anyone; neither one of them wanted to leave their spouse. Nevertheless, for Malabar, there was always hope. She was Ben’s heart’s choice, whatever that meant – and in any case, wouldn’t they both outlive their partners?

Having pinched her mother’s title, in Wild Game, Brodeur gives a fairly clear-eyed account of her affair, and its complicated repercussions. Charles does indeed die, but when Lily subsequently discovers her husband’s infidelity, Ben doesn’t leave her for his friend’s widow. Rather, he insists he has made a mistake – something that is agony not only for Malabar, but for her daughter, too, who has unaccountably become engaged to Ben’s son, Jack (alas, she neglected to tell Jack about their parents when she had the chance). But then Lily dies, too, and two months afterwards, Ben finally moves in with Malabar. Amazingly, it’s only after this that Brodeur begins to register the full extent of her mother’s narcissism. Later, when she and Jack visit their parents to announce that they are to divorce – Malabar and Ben have by now been married for four years – it makes less impression on them than the lamb chops Malabar has served for dinner.

All this is fascinating – at times, gruesomely so. I found myself quite mesmerised by Malabar; like some desperate old actress, she’s permanently ready for her closeup.

But Brodeur’s memoir is somehow a lot less gripping than it should be. Why? At first, I thought this was down to her writing. Combine her travel writerly descriptions of Cape Cod with her lusciously precise accounts of her mother’s cooking – “Malabar lowered the artfully arranged pre-dinner offerings: paper-thin slices of ruby-red venison carpaccio, a bowl of wrinkled and briny olives, and a dish of her ethereally smooth venison paté” – and what you have is memoir as it might appear in Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop: varnished rather than visceral, more complacent than searching. “I learned to become a friend to myself,” she writes at one point, which, quite apart from being a cliche of self-help, seemed to me to be not much of a weapon in the war for independence from her mother.

But there’s also the problem that too much of the action takes place off stage: though we hear about Malabar’s affair, we never really see it. A gauzy veil hangs over Brodeur’s narrative; people’s essence, like their motivation, eludes her. This story purports to be one of escape; here is a child who remained in thrall to a dominating parent until it was almost too late. Only when she finally breaks with Malabar can she forge her own life as a magazine editor, wife and mother.

But how and why did Malabar exert such power over her daughter? For whatever reason, she is not fully able to express how this snare felt – and so I wondered repeatedly why she remained for so long in her clutches; why she did not just abandon her ringside seat at Malabar’s kitchen counter and set about making her own carpaccio, elsewhere.

Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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