The Bean Trees: A Novel

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Freedom in Telling the Truth: The Millions Interviews Adrienne Brodeur

I was first introduced to Adrienne Brodeur and her memoir, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, when I was invited to a breakfast at the offices of her publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in Midtown Manhattan last spring. The breakfast was catered, tables laid out with a bountiful spread of exotic meats—wild game, naturally—only a few of which I could identify. While we ate, Brodeur regaled us with the story of her childhood, one of sprawling coastal mansions and summers on Cape Cod, cocktail hours and lavish meals of squab and foie gras, and a massive ruby- and diamond-encrusted necklace from India. As I picked at my plate, self-conscious about getting meat stuck in my teeth at a table of industry influencers, I wasn’t sure if Brodeur’s book—which sold for a staggering seven figures—would be for me. In addition to her rather glamorous upbringing, Brodeur has also led an impressive literary life: Before her current position as executive director of the literary nonprofit Aspen Words, she was an editor at HMH and founded Zoetrope: All Story with Francis Ford Coppola. This author’s story, and her world, seemed so far from mine.

But when I started reading Wild Game, I was whisked away to Brodeur’s world, devouring the memoir like an exquisite meal in one feverish sitting. The book centers around an affair between Brodeur’s mother—an elegant, enchanting, and highly narcissistic woman named Malabar, who studied as Le Cordon Bleu and could whip up clams and pâté in the time it took to quaff one of her signature (and very strong) Manhattans—and a close family friend named Ben. It was an affair, and a lie, that lasted decades, a drama in which the young Brodeur played the role of both confidante and coconspirator. She kept the secret like it was her job: she lied to her beloved stepfather and brother; covered for her mother; and often helped orchestrate trysts between the lovers, rewarded by Malabar for her loyalty with a love that was by nature conditional. It was an extravagantly constructed deception, one that led Brodeur to years of depression, self-harm, and shame. But more than the secrets and the scandal, more than some mommy-dearest tell-all of the rich and destructive, what I found in Brodeur’s book was a much more universal story: one about a mother, a daughter, and the trauma we inherit. It’s a beautiful and tenderly wrought book about loss, reclamation, family, and forgiveness; about the secrets we keep to protect the people we love, and how women so often carry the pain and wreckage of their forebears. I spoke to Brodeur about the book, how writing it helped her process the secret she kept for so long, and how becoming a mother helped her decide to finally tell her story. 

The Millions: This book feels like the story—and the secret—you’ve been waiting your whole life to tell. Did it feel that way to you on some level—inevitable? Or was there a catalyst, a specific moment when you knew you had to write it?

Adrienne Brodeur: A bit of both. It’s funny—for a long time, way before I started to think about a serious memoir, I used to play the story for laughs. I tried to turn it into a romantic comedy and even published a piece in Modern Love years ago where I focused on the humorous aspects of this crazy saga. But when I started a family of my own and as my children grew, I realized that I had to dig deeper and reexamine the way I was brought up, and look closely at the mistakes I’d made. Writing this book has been a form of atonement. It has also forced me to take a serious look at the legacy of deception that plagued my family for generations, a cycle that I’m determined to end, with me.

TM: It’s difficult to write about the people we love, especially when there’s pain at the heart of the story. Several of the key players in this story have passed away, but Malabar is still alive, though she now has dementia. Did you feel like such losses were necessary before you could write this book? Did you still struggle with writing about these lives, and if so how did you work your way through it?

AB: I didn’t intentionally wait for people to pass away to write this book, but I will say that it is always a struggle to write vividly and honestly about the people you love. What I didn’t know is that I would develop a reservoir of compassion for every single person in this book, myself included. When you explore people’s lives deeply, it’s hard not to forgive them their flaws, and to acknowledge both the highs and lows that shaped them.

TM: You render Malabar with such empathy. Despite the harm she caused you, you write her as a vivid, complex, and complicated character—larger than life, charming and magnetic, wholly human in her failures and flaws. There were times while reading this that I hated her for her selfishness, for how she treated you, but there were so many moments of tenderness I couldn’t help but feel profound empathy for her too. What was the process like in creating her as a character on the page—with all her darkness and her light?

AB: One of the surprises of writing Wild Game was the empathy I developed for my mother. In examining her life, I begin to understand anew the incredible losses she endured—twice-divorced parents, an alcoholic mother, the discovery of a secret sibling, the tragic death of her first child. Writing Wild Game was a heart-expanding process. It taught me to see my life with more nuance. We all have darkness and light within us. My mother made some terrible choices, but she also suffered greatly, endured many tragedies, and still managed to find moments of joy and tenderness.

TM: It seems like in order to write this book with so much empathy you’ve had to forgive Malabar. Have you forgiven yourself? Do you still carry some of the shame you write about, that you carried for so long, or have you been able to let it go?

AB: It is always easier to forgive others before you can even think about forgiving yourself. I still carry shame, of course, though I’ve worked hard to let some of it go. As a society, we seem to want “closure” on all of the unpleasant parts of our lives, but the past is always with us, and although we can reckon with the events that shaped us—and hopefully move beyond them—I don’t believe they ever disappear completely. I will always be someone who spent her formative years in a world where deception and secrets were the norm, and in doing so, I hurt people I cared deeply about. I make a conscious effort every day not to repeat these patterns.

TM: So much about this book is about inheritance, about intergenerational trauma. There’s alcoholism, narcissism, abuse both emotional and physical—and its ripple effects. In a scene near the end of the book, when you give birth to your daughter and then see your mother, we can feel the terror, the weight of all the things you’re afraid to pass down. Did writing the book help you reckon with that fear?

AB: Yes, it did. Writing this book not only allowed me to put feelings into words, it helped me understand my past, heal from those old wounds, and face my fears of passing intergenerational traumas along. I’m sure I will make mistakes as a parent, but I’m even more sure that they will not be the mistakes that my mother made with me. My mother believed we were two halves of the same whole, which was both thrilling because I loved her, and incredibly stifling because it prevented me from becoming my own person. We were codependent in the extreme. I love my children more than anything, but there’s nothing I want more than for them to stand on their own two feet, apart from me.

TM: Books about family trauma, especially those by women, often get called cathartic. But as a reader this story really did feel something like catharsis—like a purging or a cleansing. The story was based on a secret, and publishing the book feels like a big final way to break the silence you kept for so long and release it into the world. Did writing this story feel like catharsis? And now that it’s out in the world, how does it feel?

AB: First of all, thank you for saying that. I’m so glad you felt that way as a reader. Writing Wild Game was an intensely cathartic experience. Needless to say, I felt vulnerable writing the book, because I really put it all out there and tried not hold back, even on things I felt ashamed about. I do feel vulnerable now that it is out in the world, but I also know that every reader will bring his or her unique experience and lens to this story, and that, in a way, it is no longer just mine. People’s reaction to the material differs dramatically. The book has elicited sympathy, horror, and everything in between. And that’s okay. I enjoy hearing about other people’s relationships with their own mothers—everyone has a story.

TM: Food plays an important role in this book. Malabar the gourmand, Ben the hunter, the title based on an idea for a cookbook that the two devised as a platform upon which their affair could thrive. Food is not just an important part of your family history, but both the site of trauma and a vehicle of desire. It’s so sensually and viscerally rendered on page, the moaning over meals, popping bites in one another’s mouths, the ringing of necks and the breaking of bones, that it seems to function as a metaphor for the affair and the harm caused by it. Did you always know that food would play such a central role in this story?

AB: One thing you just have to understand is that my mother, for all her flaws, was a truly gifted cook. She was simply magical in the kitchen. You could hand her a bag of squab and a bundle of herbs and she’d whip up a gorgeous, restaurant-worthy meal. If Instagram had been around back then she’d probably be a foodie star. So yes, writing the food scenes was fun for me because it was so sensual and vibrant. Everything about it felt R-rated. Even the language she used: succulent breasts, luscious thighs—you get the drift. When I thought back on the events of my life and started to construct the scenes for the book, I thought in terms of meals. The night my mother and Ben began their affair my mother had made this feast and I can still picture the table like it was yesterday. Every meal described in the book is indelible in my mind. And it was all so delicious.

TM: Literature also plays an important part in this story. Your late stepmother, Margo, who serves a maternal role that your mother couldn’t, gives you stacks of books that help you begin to envision yourself more autonomously in the world. Which books did you read while you were writing yours, and which have been most influential?

AB: I still remember the first stack of books Margo gave me way back when: Jim Harrison’s Dalva, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, and Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Three such different books, all involving young female protagonists who must sort out complicated problems, which enabled me to imagine ways I might do the same. That is the beauty of books, of course: Every one of them takes you out of the bubble of your own experience and into a whole new world. Thanks to Margo, I’ve been a passionate reader for my adult life, and ended up making a career in the world of literature, too.

I’ve devoured memoirs for at least a decade before writing my own. I love Elizabeth Alexander for the poetry of her prose, Mary Karr for the audacity of her voice, Jeanette Walls for the grace and compassion with which she described her deeply flawed parents. The book that influenced me most as I wrote Wild Game was Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, which contained a line that served as my guiding light: “For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.” I really hope this comes through.

TM: In the epilogue, you write about your own daughter, who’s about to turn 14—the age you were when the affair began and your life changed course. I’m sure this book is going to resonate with a lot of daughters, especially those who have complicated relationships with their mothers. Did you write this book in part for your children? Who else do you hope will read this book, and what do you hope they might take from it?

AB: I didn’t so much write Wild Game for my children as I wrote it for me so that I could be a better mother to my children. I hope that this book helps anyone with a complicated or secret-filled past know that they can get to the other side. I truly believe that the more we suppress or hide our stories, the more they control us. It’s when we confront them—and own our pasts—that we are able to move beyond them toward a brighter future. There’s such freedom in telling the truth about who we are.

When I Was a Girl I Wrapped Books

When I was in high school I worked as a Christmas gift wrapper at the Chinook Bookshop in Colorado Springs. I can remember everything about the job except how I got it. I don’t remember an interview or even an application. All I remember is that every girl—and it was only girls—who wrapped books at the Chinook simply knew she was the sort of girl who wrapped books at the Chinook, and I was one of those girls. So on a weekday afternoon in early November of my junior year, I walked from William J. Palmer High School across Acacia Park to the Chinook, opened its heavy wooden door, and presented myself in the way that, just a few miles away at the Broadmoor hotel, a different sort of girl of the same age in the same season would present herself as a debutante in a white dress and a jeweled tiara. (At the Chinook I presented myself in a messy ponytail and button-fly Levis and a down jacket.)

The gift wrappers at the Chinook were North End girls, the North End being the old downtown section of a newly sprawling western city, a downtown of treed boulevards and clapboard houses so separate from the city swelling around it that only in college did I learn that the rest of the country saw Colorado Springs as something of a joke: militarized, fundamentalist, ignorant. What I saw instead was Pikes Peak from every street corner, towering and maternal and vigilant. I saw the loud and gentle Vietnam vets who lived in the Albany Apartments and panhandled out front on Tejon Street, the stucco churches with their statues of a brown Jesus, the shallow creek near the highway where in spring we waded in water the color of rust. I saw the Chinook.

And the Chinook saw me. I was there nearly every Saturday, buying a Tony Hillerman mystery for my mom’s birthday or a hardback copy of The Bean Trees with my saved babysitting wages. And when I didn’t have enough to buy a new book, which was the case more often than not, I sat on one of the kick stools meant for shelving books and read one straight through, sucking on sugar cubes I’d pinched from the bowl next to the free coffee in the back of the store. I thought no one noticed me, but of course they did. They noticed and they made an allowance, and because they did the store became my church.

And when I was 16 and they hired me to be a gift wrapper, the store became my heaven. In the weeks before Christmas the Chinook was loud and warm and full. Toddlers threw stuffed monkeys from the two-story playhouse in the children’s book section; men in hiking boots and dirty ski jackets bent over topographical maps they’d pulled from tall oak chests containing all the landscapes of the West: every vein, every slope, from the prairie to the Pacific.  Shoppers balanced tall stacks of books in their arms, left stacks of books on the wide black counter while they went back for more.

By early afternoon the store had the feeling of a house party: forgotten scarves hanging from shelving ladders, sunglasses and coffee cups left on book display tables. Protesting children lying in the aisles. And boys. Boys looking for their sisters, boys looking for their fathers, sometimes even boys looking for a book. It was easy to talk with boys at the Chinook, despite the silly apron, despite the glossy wrapped packages in my arms. It’s easier to stand solid and brave on your little spot of earth when you have a job. (I would remember this 20 years later when my job was taking care of my young children, a job that the world is very quick to tell you is not actually a job at all.  I would think how strange it was that at 16 years old, wearing an apron and gift-wrapping books, I felt more solidly planted on the earth than I did when I was a 35-year old married mother of two children with an advanced degree.)

When a customer wanted her books wrapped, a bookseller—at the Chinook they were booksellers, never sales clerks—would call out for one of us. “Wrap, please!” he’d say, turning from the counter to the cluttered warren where we worked, a narrow space behind the sales counter that was as dark and cramped as a ship’s kitchen. One of us would pop out and stand smiling at his side, ready to receive. We were taught to study the customer quickly and carefully, and to identify three physical characteristics that would distinguish her from the multitudes. We weren’t given the customers’ names, or even a copy of their sales slips. Only their books, which we were to return to them, wrapped, in as little time as possible. When the sales transaction was complete we scooped the books off the counter and took them back to our narrow worktop where we wrapped shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing two tape dispensers and four commercial-size rolls of wrapping paper mounted just above our heads.

When we emerged with the wrapped books and approached the waiting customer we weren’t allowed to ask, “Are these your books?” We were to say, “Here are your books. Merry Christmas.” We were to surprise them with our speed and confidence and our knowing. That was our job. On weekday evenings this wasn’t hard. But on Saturdays, when the swarm of customers waiting for their wrapped books would be five deep, 20 or 30 people waiting for their books, it was very hard. But we still did it, and we didn’t make mistakes. We were the sort of girls who paid attention.

On my lunch break I would walk to the cheese shop for a sandwich and I’d see kids from school, and I would say hello to boys and girls I wouldn’t say hello to in the halls. I suppose I said hello because it was Christmas and there was a little snow falling, and because of that solid feeling. I didn’t wear a coat because I’d been inside for hours and I wanted to feel the cold air on my skin. And I was young, and this was the West so the cold was dry and clear and you knew it wasn’t going to last.

The Chinook wasn’t going to last either. I didn’t know it in my wrapping days, but I would know it soon after. Soon there would be the Internet, and the big box stores, 9/11 and the recession that followed. In 2004, the Chinook closed its heavy wooden doors, 45 years to the day from its opening. There are other bookstores in downtown Colorado Springs now, but they rely—as most independent bookstores do—on Internet sales of new and used books, often through Amazon. They don’t employ a staff of 26 or gross $2.5 million a year, as the Chinook once did.

And surely there are still girls like me at William J. Palmer High School, although they no longer walk across the park to present themselves at the Chinook. I often wonder what it is they do instead, where they go to be known and needed. I wonder where they get that solid feeling.

Christmas Eve was the gift wrappers’ last day. The store opened at nine and closed at noon and for those three hours we never stopped wrapping. On Christmas Eve all our customers were men. We wrapped Word-A-Day calendars and enamel bookmarks and books that came with puzzles and finger puppets, books that were just barely books. Our feet ached and so did our fingers. And when, at five minutes past 12, the last customer was escorted out and the door locked behind him, everyone would give an exhausted cheer and Dick Noyes, the spry and white-haired owner of the Chinook who wore wide striped ties and crepe-soled Wallabees and called all the wrappers “babe,” and “doll,” would open a bottle of scotch and hand out Christmas bonuses. And us gift wrappers, who were too young to drink scotch and too shy to stand around without books to wrap, slowly hung up our aprons and collected our things, the last of the books we had bought with our just-expired employee discount, the Nalgene water bottles we kept on the shelf above the wrapping paper, our extra sweaters.  We tucked our bonus envelopes into our backpacks, said our goodbyes, and left through the shipping room’s back door, out into the alley where our older brothers were waiting in cars, ready to drive us home to Christmas.

Image Credit: Pexels.

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