Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me
- By Adrienne Brodeur
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak
- December 6, 2019
Passions both culinary and carnal ignite this literary tell-all.
Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me is incandescent. It is Adrienne Brodeur’s scintillating, irresistible memoir that often reads more like compulsive fiction than an autobiographical account of more than 40 years.
A simple declarative statement — “Ben kissed me” — changes 14-year-old Adrienne’s life forever. But it is her mother, Malabar, who makes the middle-of-the-night confession during a sweltering summer in a tiny cottage in Nauset Heights, on Cape Cod.
A stolen kiss encompasses everything about the event that launched a thousand lies. At that moment, the befuddled teen becomes confidante and co-conspirator in a very dangerous liaison. The betrayal game is afoot.
What complicates the situation is that Ben and Adrienne’s stepfather, Charles, have been close friends since childhood. Ben is a hunter, a fisherman, a conservationist, and a successful businessman.
Charles is a wealthy investment banker. Ben, the founder of the living-history museum of Plimouth Plantation, pursues an enduring obsession to find the wreck of the Whyday Gally, a long-lost pirate ship. Together, they share interests in history and archaeology.
They also share a common interest in the beguiling Malabar. Ben and Charles are in their 60s, and Malabar is 48, when the complicated affair begins.
Malabar’s interests are rich, older men and cooking. A former journalist, she wrote the “Do-Ahead Dining” column for the Boston Globe, was a chef in Time-Life’s test kitchens for its Food of the World series, and published four cookbooks. She studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
These skills come in handy as the adulterous relationship continues. In fact, they give Adrienne the appropriate — and ironic — title for her memoir.
Food and treachery come together in a brilliant scheme to ensure that Ben and Malabar can have more frequent, seemingly innocent, encounters. New York rendezvous are explained as coincidences, but those clandestine meetings are not enough for the couple. They yearn for more recurrent get-togethers. Food becomes the perfect solution.
The memoir opens in 1980, establishing menus — and alcohol — as a constant in their lives. Ben arrives on the Cape, along with his frail, ailing wife, Lily. They have been married 35 years. Ben’s house gift is a brown bagful of squab, plucked clean with their heads cut off; Lily offers flowers from her Plymouth garden, along with wild watercress.
Following the requisite cocktail hour — which includes a signature “power pack” dry Manhattan with a twist — Malabar transforms the domestic pigeons with herbs, garlic, and butter. These are accompanied by free-flowing wine.
Food is a constant motif. For breakfast, there are “gorgeous stacks of [homemade] corn fritters crisped to golden brown perfection and topped with thick slices of bacon…a holy communion of maple syrup and pork”; predinner offerings are “paper-thin slices of ruby-red venison carpaccio under dollops of horseradish crème fraiche”; dessert meringues are “launched onto seas of crème anglaise.”
Soon enough, fare and the forbidden come together in a nefarious scheme — a wild-game cookbook — to guarantee that Malabar and Ben can have more discreet, engaging encounters. It means regular meetings to test recipes.
The “hunter-gatherer couple” (Ben and Lily) and the “cooking-eating couple” (Charles and Malabar) can meet under the guise of cooperating to produce the cooking guide while one of the duos finds reasons to be together (once, ostensibly seeking charcoal in the basement).
Besides exquisite ingredients and salubrious libations, another artifact dominates the memoir — a spectacular necklace. It is an antique with a romantic history of its own.
Malabar’s parents, married twice and divorced twice from each other, lived in India when their daughter was born. This leads Malabar into mistakenly believing she was named after the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Adrienne surmises that perhaps her mother related to the caves because they represented “the loneliness of human existence,” a condition they both endured.
Malabar’s father gave the gleaming collar of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and other gems to her mother as a gift at his second marriage proposal. She promises it to Adrienne when she marries. But Malabar’s life is strewn with broken promises — many of which affect Adrienne’s own struggles.
Being an accomplice in the ongoing furtive romance takes its toll on Adrienne. At 21, during a family vacation in the Bahamas, she meets and falls in love with Ben’s stepson, Jack, a lifeguard in San Diego.
Their cross-country courtship involves more food. They make linguine convongole, stretching homemade pasta out to dry on the backs of chairs, across a lamp, on the dining room table in her West Village apartment, which begins to look like the “set for a romantic comedy.” It becomes a very dark comedy as Adrienne realizes she is “falling in love with her mother’s lover’s son.”
An unlikely marriage follows. But so do listlessness and depression. She keeps the secret of their parents’ alliance to herself.
Soon, with psychiatric care, Adrienne pursues her own wellbeing. It’s literature that saves her. Her father’s friend Margot gives Adrienne books to read: Vanity Fair, Love in the Time of Cholera, Pride and Prejudice, The Handmaid’s Tale, Possession, Mrs. Dalloway — classic stories that show “how characters coped with adversity, bad choices, life’s onslaughts.”
She heeds her ambitions in the creative arts — as an unpaid intern with the Paris Review and a fact checker for a travel magazine. By 1995, at 30 years old, a random meeting with Francis Ford Coppola leads Adrienne to co-found the literary magazine Zoetrope: All-Story. Eventually, she and Jack amicably agree to divorce.
By the end of this journey, literature will outrank food in Adrienne’s life. She will discover that while illicit love may be electrifying, it is also stultifying. The loneliness that clouded both Malabar’s life and her own will dissipate. She knows that her own happiness — not her mother’s — is paramount.
There is very little to fault about this unvarnished memoir. But there is one slight reservation. In a somewhat peculiar disclaimer in an author’s note, Brodeur says she has “changed the names of everyone in the book except for my parents, Malabar and Paul, and myself.”
For what purpose? A quick internet search of her name identifies all the other parties in the story. And, in an acknowledgement, she names other names. Since Wild Game appears to be about full disclosure, it seems disingenuous not to be transparent with identities.
Otherwise, Wild Game is a must-read, a peek into a privileged and tarnished life. It is an audacious narrative likely to rivet readers’ attention.
Robert Allen Papinchak is a former university English professor whose reviews and criticism appear in numerous newspapers, magazines, literary journals, and online.