Aspen Words’ Adrienne Brodeur releases a provocative and intimate telling of her life.
In the first chapter of Adrienne Brodeur’s memoir, Wild Game ($27, Houghlin, Mifflin Harcourt), we meet her mother’s lover. He’s no stranger to 14-year-old Brodeur: Ben is her stepfather’s best friend and has been part of her life since she was even younger. But that fateful night, the relationship between Ben and her mother, Malabar, unofficially begins—“Ben Souther just kissed me,” says Brodeur’s mom—and the trajectory of Adrienne’s life is unknowingly changed from then on.
“On some level, I’ve been contemplating this book since I was 14—when my mother’s secret catapulted me into the role of being her confidante—but it was when I had children of my own that I understood I would have to examine my family history more deeply,” she says. “I didn’t want to parent as I’d been parented.”
Adrienne’s mother, Malabar, was born in India.
Malabar conscripts Brodeur into her yearslong affair with Ben. The young Brodeur, eager to oblige and delighted to be her mother’s emotional vault, guards the relationship and is an accomplice in their trysts and a passenger on her mother’s roller coaster of feelings. By the end of the story, we feel like we’re sitting backseat too.
Brodeur is the executive director for literary nonprofit Aspen Words, which is under the Aspen Institute umbrella. She was hired in 2013 to help grow the 43-year-old organization from a writer-focused foundation into a promoter of words for both readers and writers. Her 20-plus years in the publishing world—she was an acquiring editor at Harcourt and HMH Books, and founded the literary magazine Zoetrope with Francis Ford Coppola—and access to New York insiders made her the right choice to raise Aspen Words’ profile.
During Brodeur’s tenure, Aspen Words has presented award-winning writers (poet laureate Billy Collins, The Underground Railroad’s Colson Whitehead, and Hidden Figures’ Margot Lee Shetterly); grown its residency program into a coveted retreat awarded to six writers for one-month stints each year; and launched the Aspen Literary Prize, a $35,000 recognition of books that are contributing to the social conversations of our time. (This year’s winner was Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage.)
In fact, Brodeur’s first interaction with Aspen Words was as an editor herself. She visited in 2012 to speak on a panel during Summer Words, the nonprofit’s signature event for aspiring authors. She was also paired with writers in a program called The Editing Room, offering advice from the agency side, which she initially proposed to Aspen Words. Now, she lives in Cambridge, Mass., and visits Aspen throughout the year.
But for as much as she’s given to Aspen Words, graciously, she says it’s her experience here that catalyzed her to write this intimate book. “At Aspen Words, I got to see writers working hard at every stage in their career: students speaking their truth on stage, novices learning craft at Summer Words, professionals finalizing drafts at the Catto Shaw residency, literary luminaries speaking at Winter Words. It has been beyond inspiring for me to watch friends in this community bravely endeavor to tell their stories. At some point, I thought, ‘If they can do this, so can I.’”
From top: Adrienne Brodeur as a young girl on Cape Cod; Brodeur and mother, Malabar.
Brodeur’s first attempts at telling her story were “light and humorous,” she says, between a New York Times Modern Love essay and an ill-fated rom-com script. “Over time, I realized that in order to do my story justice, I needed to face the truth (much of it painful) head-on, in memoir.” Poetically, her daughter will turn 14 at the same time her book is released.
Brodeur began writing her book three years ago, rising at 4:30am to let the words flow before her children woke up. “I’d spent so many years reading and thinking about the story that it had crystallized in my head, and the writing came fairly easily,” she says. By the time she had it out on paper, it was 2017, and she delivered the first draft to her agent before Summer Words that year.
Fourteen publishing houses bid on it at auction, and HMH purchased the North American rights for seven figures. Brodeur revised it for the next nine months and finished it in August 2018. In addition to the book deal, there’s a contract with Audible, which will release the audiobook simultaneously with the hardcover. Film rights were preempted by Chernin Entertainment for a reported six figures, and to date, foreign rights sales have been made in five territories. This fall, Brodeur will tour more than 20 cities in the U.S. and Canada.
“I started Wild Game on the plane, and four hours later, I hardly knew whether we’d taken off or not, I was so immersed in this compulsive memoir,” says Caroline Tory, Aspen Words’ associate director. “Adrienne has created a rare gem that is simultaneously readable and literary, engrossing and artistic. The experience of reading a close colleague’s work was interesting, because I already knew bits and pieces of Adrienne’s story. But the way she wove it together—masterfully building tension and drama alongside beautiful sensory details of food and Cape Cod—made me feel as though I was hearing the story for the first time.”
Wild Game is set mostly in Cape Cod, and the vivid descriptions vary between the melancholy seashore and evocative meals. Brodeur’s mother was a chef who published many cookbooks, and food is a central theme in this memoir. When we meet Ben in the first scene, he’s toting squab that Malabar turns into dinner—“the meat was silky and tender, fine-grained and richer than I expected,” Brodeur writes. The title, Wild Game, is a double entendre itself, referring to both the recipes Ben and Malabar scheme about turning into a collaborative cookbook and the dangerous escapade in which they’re involved.
Brodeur spends summers on Cape Cod today, and recently moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“My childhood revolved around meals, and my memories are most easily accessed by food—meaning, if you asked me what I was doing in the summer of 1986, I’d be stymied, but if you mentioned the time my mother served lamb fattah, I could describe the side dishes, the table setting and who was present,” says Brodeur. The table settings and menus she recalls are mouthwatering: “paper-thin slices of ruby-red venison carpaccio”; “sublime appetizers made from creatures plucked from the ocean’s floor hours earlier”; “the hypnotic hiss of fat dripping was the backdrop to almost every meal.”
And while she referenced her mother’s detailed cooking notes to create these scenes, it was her own journaling and memories that filled in the rest. Both of Brodeur’s parents were writers, but it was her second stepmother, a bookstore owner in Southern California, who imprinted on her a love of literature, by feeding her book after book.
Brodeur’s life indelibly changed because of that. It eventually brought her to Aspen and catalyzed her to put her story down on paper. But, she says, there’s not much that can get anyone totally ready for that.
“Although I’m an avid reader and have been fortunate to have had a fulfilling career in the literary world, both of which contributed to understanding narrative structure and appreciating language, I’m not sure that anything prepares someone to write a deeply personal memoir beyond a profound need to reckon with the past,” says Brodeur.
Readers, however, will be glad she did.
Photography by: Adirenne Broduer