Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard
4-1-2014 - Vem aí o filme extraído do livro com o mesmo título do livro em Inglês e o de "Um segredo do passado" em Português.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Sometimes It's Okay to Pick Up a Scary Drifter
By Caroline Preston
By Joyce Maynard
244 pp. $24.99
With Labor Day fast approaching, many of us are already looking forward to the last-blast-of-summer rituals, family barbecues and backyard baseball games. But for Henry, the likable 13-year-old narrator of Joyce Maynard's moving new novel, Labor Day weekend is shaping up like the rest of his lonely summer with nothing to do except watch television, play with his hamster and fantasize about his female classmates.
Henry lives in a small New Hampshire town with his beautiful, fragile mother, Adele, who has shrunk back from the world after a wounding divorce. Because Adele is too agoraphobic to venture out much, they subsist on canned soup and Cap'n Andy frozen fish dinners. But the Thursday before Labor Day weekend, Henry persuades his mother to go on a back-to-school shopping trip to the local Pricemart. There an unkempt man with a gash on his forehead approaches them and asks for a ride. "I'd be careful not to get blood on your seat," he says.
While this request would send most of us sprinting to store security, Henry and Adele are so unworldly and desperate for company that they agree. When the man, Frank Chambers, confesses that he's a convicted murderer who's gotten his wounds in a prison escape, a sense of dread begins to mount.
But Frank's claim that Adele and Henry have "never been in better hands" seems, incredibly, to be true. Over the next five days, Frank teaches Henry a few important life skills -- how to throw a baseball, how to change a flat tire, how to make a flaky pie crust. Frank and Adele, both love-starved, become infatuated, and she begins to snap out of her long depression. Henry feels jealous but is mostly relieved that Frank can take over the burden of his mother. "I am not responsible for making her happy anymore. That job can be his now. This leaves me free for other things. My own life, for instance."
It is a testament to Maynard's skill that she makes this ominous setup into a convincing and poignant coming-of-age tale. As she has revealed in her memoirs and five previous novels, Maynard has had her own share of unsuitable attachments (including an intense pen pal relationship with a convicted murderer). She understands the deep yearnings that drive people to impulsive decisions and sometimes reckless behavior.
As Henry looks back on that fateful Labor Day weekend, he decides that Frank's most useful lesson was quite simple: Take a leap of faith and believe "that you would land on your own two feet."
Preston's most recent novel is "Gatsby's Girl."
Reviews by TOM LeCLAIR
Published: August 21, 2009
By Joyce Maynard
In tennis tournaments, “lucky losers” are players included in the main draw despite failing in the final qualifying round. In “Labor Day,” the losers are a poor and depressed single mother, her hapless 13-year-old son and the escaped murderer they welcome into their New Hampshire home for the 1987 end-of-summer holiday. Luckily for Adele and Henry, Frank is a really nice guy who can immediately meet Adele’s romantic and sexual needs, make a great peach pie and teach Henry how to throw a baseball. Not that there aren’t some minor issues, like harboring a wanted man and Henry’s fear that Adele and Frank will run off to Canada without him. The book is narrated two decades later by Henry, unsuccessfully pretending he’s 13 again, which makes him a two-time loser. If “Labor Day” is supposed to be a feel-good story, why did I feel so bad while reading it? Because it’s less likely and more saccharine than the escaped con’s lovingly described peach pie.
Tom LeClair’s fifth novel, “Passing Through,” was published last year.
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, August 9, 2009
'Labor Day,' by Joyce Maynard
Joyce Maynard knows her way around domestic life, its coziness and craziness. She knows baby love and baby lust, child-raising and pie-making, squirrelly teenage boys and snooty young girls, passion and boredom.
She practically has an advanced degree in relationships on the rocks. Since she burst on the scene at 18 in 1972, she has written terrific nonfiction about all these subjects, including the memorable "Domestic Affairs," a collection of columns about raising her three children in New Hampshire and the breakup of her marriage. In "Labor Day," her latest novel, she explores many of these favorite topics in fiction with mixed success.
The premise is promising and full of foreboding. On a sizzling hot Labor Day weekend in a small New Hampshire town ("a place where people knew each other's business"), Frank, a prisoner, escapes from the local penitentiary. After a random encounter at a Pricemart, he insinuates himself into the lives of two people almost as down on their luck as he is. There's the novel's narrator, 13-year-old Henry, and his troubled single mother, Adele, who's raising him after the divorce with weekly visits from his dad. Adele rarely goes out. While an all-points bulletin is launched for Frank's arrest, the three hole up in the house. It's a hostage situation that could be a disaster but becomes instead a weird weekend of family bonding.
Maynard is masterful at the offhand details that reveal three people at their wits' ends. Frank, on the lam, offers to buy Henry a puzzle book but needs to give him an IOU "since at the moment his funds were limited." Adele pours a gallon of milk on the floor after being grilled by a social worker about child custody. "It was like she was missing the outer layer of skin that allows people to get through the day without bleeding all the time," observes Henry's father about his ex-wife. "The world got to be too much for her."
But the novel's most convincing voice is Henry, poised between little boy and mouthy teen. Wise and wide-eyed and forthright, he's Holden Caulfield without the edge, and the pleasure of this novel comes from listening to his narrative take on what he sees. Maynard is confident and at ease painting Henry's world, his Einstein poster and mineral collection, his Narnia books and signed letter from the Apollo 12 astronauts, his copy of Thousand and One Great Party Jokes.
Watching his mother and Frank gradually falling in love, Henry admits, "here is one of the best parts about his showing up. I am not responsible for making her happy anymore. That job can be his now. This leaves me free for other things. My own life, for instance."
While Frank and Adele cocoon in the house all weekend, turning it into their love nest, Henry begins to venture into the outside world. He meets an edgy, slightly older girl and stumbles into first-time love. "She was wearing a dress so short it made you think maybe she hadn't finished getting dressed," offers Henry. Their romance feels authentic, meant-to-be.
But the relationship that unfolds between Frank and Adele requires much more suspension of disbelief. In their previous lives before fate brought them together, these two aggrieved souls have both suffered wounding losses. Frank's setback explains, in part, the motive behind his crime, Adele's the reason she's afraid to venture out. The layering of their histories moves the plot along but also gets a little, well, labored. You want to believe that one weekend of domestic bliss can turn their lives around, but even a narrator as charming as Henry struggles to make a convincing case.
Elizabeth Fishel is the author of "Reunion: The Girls We Used to Be, the Women We Became" and the co-editor of "Something That Matters."
Los Angeles Times
August 7, 2009
'Labor Day' by Joyce Maynard
The thirtysomething protagonist, reminiscing about his teen years and an odd family setting, bears more than a passing resemblance to Maynard herself.
By Donna Rifkind
Holidays in American fiction are often the tearful crossroads where domestic
expectations clash with domestic reality. Joyce Maynard's sixth novel, "Labor
Day," fits right in with this subgenre of broken dreams, chronicling a tense
end-of-summer weekend in 1987 in a New Hampshire town.
The book's narrator is Henry, a man in his early 30s who is looking back on his fateful 13th year, when he lived with his mother after his parents' divorce. Labor Day weekend for adolescent Henry is a muggy, breathless pause between the tedium of vacation and the misery of middle school. But life gets a little more exciting when his mother, a depressive loner who rarely leaves the house, takes him to Pricemart to buy him some new pants.
In the store's magazine section, a stranger asks Henry for help. He's tall and muscular and appears perfectly competent, but when Henry notices that his leg is bleeding, the man explains that he fell out of a window. "[M]aybe it was that everything seemed so odd back then," reflects the older Henry; "this comment in particular didn't stand out."
Things turn odder still when the stranger -- whose name is Frank -- cajoles
Henry's mother into giving him a ride to her house. "He was probably the first
person we'd had over in a year. Possibly two," Henry confides. Yet his mother
seems utterly unfazed by Frank, even after he tells them that he just escaped
from the state penitentiary, where he'd been doing time for murder.
Faster than you can say "suspension of disbelief," this trio of misfits adjusts into a facsimile of a happy family. Frank makes himself at home in Henry's dark, cluttered house. While TV news reports burble warnings about the search for the dangerous felon, Frank does the laundry, cleans the furnace filters, offers Henry baseball tips and teaches him how to make peach pie. Meanwhile, Henry's mother and Frank fall into a dreamy, hostage-flavored romance. With her full cooperation, Frank ties her up with her own scarves and feeds her his homemade chili, as Henry looks uncomfortably on. "I shouldn't be here was how I felt," he murmurs. We're with him.
Reduced to its broad outlines, "Labor Day" can't help sounding a little ridiculous: a goofy mash-up of "Mary Poppins," "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Cape Fear," minus the fear. But there is a lot more to it than that. Like all the fiction Joyce Maynard has written, her new novel may lack many of the literary qualities thought necessary to create a convincing illusion, yet it will not be dismissed. It insists on having its say.
We can't fully understand that insistence without knowing something about Maynard's own personal story, which she detailed in her eyebrow-raising 1998 memoir, "At Home in the World." In that book, she depicts the homes of her youth and young adulthood as far less cozy than the idealized representations she saw on her favorite TV shows. Her early years were dominated by her father's alcoholic rages and her mother's seething frustration. From a very young age she worked feverishly to fulfill both parents' grand expectations, eventually selling a cover story to the New York Times Magazine, in 1972, called "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life." She too insisted on having her say.
The article, with its full-length photo, caught the attention of none other than author J. D. Salinger, then 53 years old and living semi-reclusively in small-town New Hampshire, about 60 miles from Maynard's own childhood home. Before too long she dropped out of Yale and moved in with Salinger, with her parents' inexplicable benediction.
Less than a year later, before she had turned 20, Salinger unceremoniously threw her out. Maynard used her earnings as a budding writer to buy her own cabin in the woods, where she nearly had a nervous breakdown. There followed a succession of apartments and houses; a marriage; three children; a divorce. Through it all Maynard has remained almost obsessively domestic -- her website includes a video in which she demonstrates how to make a proper pie crust, just as Frank does in her new novel -- yet she still seems haunted by an unfulfilled dream of home.
Backed up by this autobiographical information, "Labor Day" begins to make much more sense. It too is haunted by impossible fantasies of a happy home. And it too features a scarred adult who looks back on the ruin of his childhood in an attempt to make some sense of it. Its best moments come straight from real life: Henry talks of making a coupon for his mother that offer his services as "Husband for a day" -- something Maynard mentions in a website article that her own son once did for her. Learning how to make pie with Frank gives Henry "a nice feeling. . . . Like we were all normal people here." Considering all the ways it's possible to be uncomfortably cooped up with family over a long holiday weekend, the notion of harboring a dangerous fugitive as a father figure doesn't seem quite so outlandish after all.
Rifkind is a critic whose work has appeared in several publications, including the Washington Post and the New York Times.
The Dallas Morning News
(William Morrow, $24.99)
Joyce Maynard is one of those blessed authors who can compress a lifetime's worth of ideas and emotions into a spare piece of work. The closest comparison I can make is Ian McEwan, whose Atonement has some of the same elements as Maynard's latest novel: the pangs of adolescence, the roller-coaster swells and dips of love and loss, a devastating betrayal from an intimate source.
With Labor Day, Maynard concocts that heady brew in a mere 244 pages, depicting the events of a late 1980s Labor Day weekend through the eyes of 13-year-old narrator Henry.
Henry lives with his mother, Adele, in the small town of Holton, N.H., "the kind of town where people know each other's business," Henry laments. "They'd notice if you left your grass too long between one lawn mowing and the next, and if you painted your house some color besides white, they might not say anything to your face, but they'd talk about it. Where my mother was the kind of person who just wanted to be left alone. ... At this point, my mother's goal was to be invisible, or as close as she could get."
Adele is still reeling from the divorce from Henry's father, who has remarried and has a stepson and a new daughter. Henry, his loyalties set in stone, steadfastly refuses to call the new child "sister:" "Our family was my mother, Adele, and me, period. I would have counted the hamster, Joe, before including that baby, Chloe." As it turns out, Joe precipitates the book's climactic crisis.
In the book's opening pages, Henry convinces Adele that he needs new school clothes, and they go on a rare outing to Pricemart. There, Henry meets a man who asks for a ride, and they end up taking him home. This is the only note in the book that rings false; Adele seems awfully reserved and protective to put herself and her son in danger by inviting Frank, a complete stranger, into their lives.
The encounter turns into something that under the pen of, say, Harlan Coben, would turn into a terrifying thriller. Here, though, Maynard improbably, gorgeously maintains the gentle atmosphere she's already created. Frank and Adele, both love-starved, turn toward each other as Henry, bewildered but not disapproving, looks on.
It's only when Henry brings another person into the equation, a teenage girl he's trying to impress, that things turn ugly. Henry doesn't betray Adele and Frank, exactly, but he says too much, and he's hardly innocent of the possible consequences.
In depicting Henry's awkward but determined straining away from his mother, while still wanting all of her attention for himself and struggling to reconcile those warring emotions, Maynard has forged an indelible, precise portrait of early adolescence. It's a perfect late-summer book, a page-turner that also makes you think.
LABOR DAY, by Joyce Maynard. William Morrow, 244 pp., $24.99.
Here's the premise: A battered, bleeding murderer on the lam from prison meets a 13-year-old boy and his reclusive single mom in the New Hampshire discount store to which they've made a rare foray. They take him home, fall in love, and hole up for a five-day honeymoon of pie making, baseball throwing and headboard banging (or, in young Henry's case, listening to headboard banging) - until, inevitably, the sirens wail.
As in her best-known novel, "To Die For" - in which a newscaster pays her boy toy to kill her husband - Joyce Maynard begins with a flashy tabloid premise. But instead of the cool, cutting satire of the earlier work, "Labor Day," narrated by Henry, is suffused with tenderness, dreaminess and love. It is tender even toward its villain - not the convict, but an anorexic teenage girl Henry meets in the library. But is tenderest toward Adele, the mom, a one-time dancer who looks like Ginger on "Gilligan's Island," a damaged woman hiding at the end of a dead-end street in a very small town. She has laid in a year's supply of macaroni and soup; they have mail-order catalogs (the book is set in the mid '80s, before online shopping), they have a hamster, mother-son home dance lessons and Spanish flash cards.
As Adele puts it, "How many errands does a person really need to do? . . . When you think about it, all that going around to places just wasted so much time you could be spending in your own home."
"Labor Day" is first and foremost a page-turner, and its momentum and brevity compensate for a couple of distractions along the way. For example, though I was moved by the depth of its compassion for Adele's losses - a stillborn baby and a divorce - I wondered if an adolescent boy could feel and know as much about them as Henry does. Supposedly he is telling the story from a distance of many years, but this older-and-wiser perspective surfaces rarely and feels like an abandoned premise or an afterthought. Fortunately, the traces of wishful ventriloquism in some of his insights are balanced with moments of pure 13-ness - insecurity, naiveté, horniness, a little snideness.
The other stumbling block to suspension of disbelief is the character of Frank Chambers. The convicted killer of his wife and infant son, Frank is a wholly blameless and profoundly gentle saint (not to mention parenting guru and pastry chef). For nonpareil soft-core fantasy, try the scene where this man with a price on his head carefully ties Adele to a chair with silk scarves and feeds her dinner.
For me, these caveats were swept away by the steamroller plot, which shatters everyone's happiness with misunderstandings and betrayals born of colliding sexualities. Though it is being compared to Ian McEwan's "Atonement" for this reason, "Labor Day" puts back together the world it destroys. "Eighteen years passed," opens the next-to-last chapter, beginning the part where you definitely need to get a box of tissues.
The Washington Times
By Joyce Maynard
William Morrow, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, $24.99, 241 pages
By Ron Carlson
Viking, $25.95, 184 pages
BETWEEN THE ASSASSINATIONS
By Aravind Adiga
Free Press, $24, 336 pages
In 1972, as a freshman at Yale, Joyce Maynard was chosen to write a cover story for the New York Times magazine. "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life" and the cover photo of the very gamine author got her lots of attention, including a fan letter from the famously reclusive writer J.D. Salinger. After corresponding with him for a few months and visiting briefly, Ms. Maynard dropped out of college to move in with Mr. Salinger, her senior by 40 years. By the time she wrote about the year-long affair that followed in her 1998 memoir, "At Home in the World," Ms. Maynard was the successful author of several novels and much of the rest of her life was well known to readers via columns and blogs that documented her doings in great detail.
She wrote about marriage and divorce, raising three children and the decision to deal with her "post breast-feeding" body's lack of "perkiness" by having breast implants (and then trading in the big implants for smaller ones.) Her books, blogs and writing workshops have a devoted following. So her new novel, "Labor Day," out in time to be the last book read on the beach or at the cabin, will surely find a receptive audience. It is a story so improbable and with an ending so primordially satisfying that it might be described as a fairy tale. It is even told in the voice of one just out of childhood, 13-year-old Henry, a boy caught between the predictable respectability of weekend dinners with his father, stepmother and baby half-sister, and what he considers his "real" family — his mother, Adele. She is anything but predictable, a former dancer so agoraphobic that the only job she can have is selling vitamins over the telephone.
On a rare excursion to town, milling around a mega-store after picking out clothes for the upcoming school year, Henry meets a man who is wearing the uniform shirt of a Pricemart employee but seems a bit odd. One of his legs is oozing blood and there's a thin trickle on his face, too. He asks Henry to introduce him to his mom.
The story that follows is as lurid and engrossing as a fairy tale and its themes are just as adult. The pleasures of domesticity are front and center, but so is sex — the 13- year-old's crude preoccupation with his own body, his uncomfortable observation of what is happening between his mother and Frank and his ultimate recognition of its relationship to love. Ms. Maynard's treatment of the subject is not subtle but it does ring true.
In "The Signal," author Ron Carlson sets an ominous tone from the very first sentence. The scene is the "Cold Creek trailhead," the protagonist is driving an "old blue Chevrolet"; there's a "ruined sign" and it's twilight in September. Mr. Carlson is a stylist; his way with words is the primary satisfaction of the story of Mack, a down on his luck ranch hand anxiously awaiting a long-planned camping trip reunion with his former wife, Vonnie. Her arrival intensifies the somber mood. "It's been a hideous year," she tells Mack, "and you hideous in it, but it's my word." She had promised him one last time together.
As Mack and Vonnie hike woods and trails full of wildlife and laden with memory, their story emerges. He had grown up working on the dude ranch run by his courtly and loving, competent father. Vonnie was a guest, the daughter of wealthy, Eastern parents. The two were attracted to each other but lost touch when she went off to Brown and he headed to Boise State. Later, they reconnected and married "in the dooryard of the home place … [with] three horses standing witness at the corral fence." At first they were "in love and poor and so fine, but then they wore out poor and they did some damage to love." The present and the past weave through the six days of Mack and Vonnie's mountain adventure as Mack's agenda for the trip, complicated by murky business dealings, goes wrong and violence erupts.
"The Signal's" plot is complex. Its characters, on the other hand, are static and flat. Mack describes himself as feeling like "a man washed up on the beach after trying to drown himself…." His father's unexpected death had left him "rudderless" and his pride is hurt by failure in business, but still his meltdown is hard to comprehend. Likewise, Vonnie's shifting moods are confusing because we don't really know her.
What does come through, vividly, is the author's exceptional feeling for the West and for the out of doors, a feeling he has given to his characters. "There was nothing," Mack notes one night, "between him and the four trillion stars except the unending waves of dark chill dropping steadily onto the mountain meadow." Such sentences make this short book, despite its shortcomings, a pleasure to read.
Born in India, educated at Columbia and Oxford universities and now living in Mumbai, Aravind Adiga was awarded the 2008 Man Booker prize for his debut novel, "The White Tiger." He now follows it with a collection of loosely related stories also set in India at a precise time indicated by the book's title, "Between the Assassinations." In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her bodyguards. Seven years later, her son Rajiv Gandhi, also serving as prime minister, was killed by Tamil separatists. Aravind's stories do not explicitly describe these events but they vividly evoke the chaotic, brutal world that spawned them. "Ever since Mrs. Gandhi died," one character observes, "this country has begun to fall apart."
The setting is Kittur, a fictional town on India's southwestern coast. Charts and chapter introductions that read like passages from a guidebook evoke the locale — the railway station, "dim, dirty, and littered with discarded lunch bags into which stray dogs poke their noses"; Umbrella Street, the heart of the commercial district, with its pornographic cinema, colonial-era arched gateway and famous ice-cream shop; "the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Maidan (formerly King George V Memorial Maidan)," a place that is the site of the first temple for the use of the Hoyka, the "backward caste" that makes up 24 percent of the town's population.
Each chapter is the story of one character — Ziauddin, a Muslim boy surviving on odd jobs in the murky underworld around Kittur's railway station; Chenayya, the young bicycle deliveryman killing himself with heavy loads, both physical and emotional; Abassi, the glib owner of a shirt factory who can "feel, between his fingers, the fine-spun fabric of corruption"; Souma, the little girl forced to beg so she can get drugs for her father; Ratna, the soft-hearted snake-oil salesman with three daughters to marry off; Murali, the aging Marxist who aspires to write like de Maupassant and realizes that "the Communists [are] finished." The stories pulse with energy, with color, with the odor of excrement and stale feet, elephants and dead cows, and with the subtleties of social interaction in a profoundly stratified society. They are disturbing but fascinating. Clearly, Aravind Adiga is a writer to watch.
• Stephanie Deutsch is a writer and critic in Washington.
The Miami Herald
Sun, Aug. 23, 2009
Labor Day. Joyce Maynard. Morrow. 256 pages.
At the heart of Joyce Maynard's latest novel sits a peach pie, the perfect emblem for this quintessentially American morality tale, with its preoccupations of family and decency. The book offers life lessons: in parenting, loyalty, the enduring power of love -- and how to achieve a perfect crust, even during a heat wave.
The story's physical extent is short, its sentiments simple, but Maynard has worked her ingredients carefully -- a pinch of quirkiness here, a measure of sentimentality there -- and the outcome is guaranteed to satisfy readers with an appetite for sweetness.
The narrator, Henry, looks back almost two decades, to a hot holiday weekend in his 13th year when he and his eccentric, divorced, probably depressed mother Adele are shopping in Pricemart. Henry finds himself in conversation with Frank, a tall man who is bleeding, and in the first of the book's multiple celebrations of innocence, they take him home.
In fact, Frank is a convicted murderer just escaped from prison, but as jailbirds go, he is the extreme antithesis of hardened. Indeed, he's more domesticated than Adele and is soon to be found cooking chili, waxing floors and doing the ironing. His one threatening act, early on, is to tie up Adele, but he does it erotically, using soft silk scarves. Soon the adults are lovers.
Through the thin walls of the house, pubescent Henry can hear Frank and Adele's passion, which only deepens the boy's confusion about sex recently made manifest in uncontrollable developments within his own body. But Frank befriends Henry too, teaching him motor maintenance and how to catch a baseball. Frank is the role model Henry needs, now that the boy's father has a new wife and child and only appears for ritual Saturday dinners at Friendly's.
Family has been a preoccupation of Maynard through several books, most recently Internal Combustion, the nonfiction account of a seemingly happy marriage disrupted by murder. Conversely, in Labor Day, she wickedly upends the Rockwellian portrait of what a family should look like, putting a jail-breaking wife-slayer at its heroic center. It's an ironic moment to cherish before the book shifts gear.
Because idylls can't last, certainly not in novels with a didactic purpose. There's that slough of despond to be visited before arriving at the celestial city. And so, with a sense of grinding machinery, Maynard has Frank reveal the circumstances of his incarceration. Now the sunny scenario turns Manichean, becoming a vampish story of duplicitous sex-pots and appalling, implausible tragedies. Frank's real crime, it emerges, is unworldliness, an excess of innocence and trust. And Henry is about to fall into the same trap, after suspecting that Adele and Frank are planning to run away to Canada without him. He confides in Eleanor, a new friend with an eating disorder and a cynical take on sexuality, who articulates Henry's Oedipal dilemma regarding Frank: ``Either you get rid of him. Or he gets rid of you.''
Who gets rid of whom, how, where and for how long is the business of the rather more condensed final third of a novel now straining to conclude its moral equation: misjudgment + repentance = restoration (eventually). The pattern of starkly shaded secondary female characters who deliver the novel's misdeeds holds up, allowing Maynard to depict her menfolk more as victims than venal, survivors of poor choices who learn sorrow and regret, before routinely achieving redemption in the final act.
And that's where the peach pie makes its curtain call, representing not only all that's wholesome, enduring, wise and true but also much, much more: salvation, reconnection, an almost magical healing balm. Now that's some recipe. Move over, Martha.
Elsbeth Lindner is a writer in London.
Serving Northern Michigan
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Maynard's novel is compelling
By CAROL DEEGAN
"Labor Day" (William Morrow. 244 pages. $24.99), by Joyce Maynard.
It's the long Labor Day weekend in Holton Mills, N.H., in the mid-1980s, and 13-year-old Henry and his mother, Adele, have nothing special planned.
That's not unusual. Adele doesn't like to leave the house, though Henry wishes they'd get out more. She works at home, selling vitamins over the phone, and hasn't really dated since Henry's dad divorced her. But Henry, who is about to enter the seventh grade, needs a new pair of pants. So Adele decides to go shopping at their local Pricemart.
That's when everything changes for Adele and Henry in Joyce Maynard's "Labor Day," a story so compelling, many readers will finish it in one sitting. And then read it again.
Henry, a budding adolescent, is reading Cosmopolitan magazine while his mother shops when a stranger approaches him. The stranger tells Henry that he needs a ride — to his house. Henry notices the man's pants are bloody. ("I fell out a window," the stranger — who later introduces himself as Frank — explains.)
Other people's mothers would have refused Frank's request on the spot, or at least asked a question or two. But Adele isn't like other people's mothers. She agrees to take him home with them.
It turns out that Frank has escaped from prison. (He jumped out a second-floor hospital window.) He holds Adele hostage, but only briefly — and very tenderly.
Frank is attentive to Adele, plays catch with Henry and even bakes a peach pie. He also finds his way into Adele's heart.
Henry is happy that Frank is in the picture. But when Frank and Adele begin making plans to leave town, Henry assumes that he'll be left behind. ("All this time I'd been picturing how now it would be the three of us together, like when we played catch in the yard, only really, it was going to be the two of them.")
"Labor Day" is a page-turner, from the beginning lines, when Henry describes how his father left him and his mother for a new wife and family, to the final chapters, when Henry is a grown man.
Maynard, author of "To Die For," is in top form in this tale of love, betrayal and forgiveness.
July 26, 2009
By JOYCE MAYNARD
AS hard as it was sometimes caring for my children when they were little, back in those days I at least stood a reasonable chance of protecting my sons and daughter from pain and loss. The hard part hits later, when — fiercely as you love this person and desperately as you may worry — you can’t come to your child’s rescue. Worse, what you imagined you were doing to protect her may actually end up inflicting another form of injury, as my actions easily could have, in what happened between my daughter and me in the story I tell here.
It was the fall of 2001, and the world felt like a particularly dangerous place. My children were grown and out on their own — one son at college, the other bumming around West Africa. My daughter, Audrey, 22, had left to spend six months volunteering with a women’s organization in a poor town in the Dominican Republic.
Not long after Audrey started living in Barahona she e-mailed that she had met a young man, Johnny, who ran a kind of taxi service, offering rides on the back of his motorcycle. He had given her a lift.
She didn’t tell me much, but I knew Johnny had come to the Dominican Republic from Haiti in search of a better life. Audrey said he was handsome, smart, funny, a great dancer and wonderful to her. Within a month she wrote to say she was in love.
Then nothing. Unable to reach Audrey at her rented room, I sent breezy news reports, casual questions. “How’s Johnny?” Then, “I’m worried.”
Finally, I tracked her down by calling the neighbors’ house. Even on that line filled with static I could tell something was wrong. Her voice, usually so lively, sounded wary and defensive: “I just can’t talk now. There’s a lot going on.”
Weeks passed. More silence. Or — almost worse — flat-sounding, one-line e-mail messages: “Will write later. Don’t worry.”
But I worried all the time now, more even than when I got the message from my son in Africa: “I’m over the worst of the malaria now.” He was writing to me, at least. From Audrey, nothing.
In early spring — six months since I had seen her last — I dreamed my daughter was running down a dirt road, with her long braid flying behind her and her face a mask of grief. The dream felt real.
That morning I knew what I would do, though I feared my daughter might never forgive me.
For years I had known the password to her e-mail account but never used it. Now — hands trembling on the keyboard — I typed it in.
Slowly, then, in messages she had written to friends, the story unfolded.
She and Johnny had gone for their H.I.V. test that December. Two weeks later: A clean bill of health for Audrey. But the man my daughter believed to be the love of her life was H.I.V. positive. Back then, for an undocumented Haitian living in the Dominican Republic, the medical services necessary to keep him alive would be available only at a cost beyond his means.
It got worse. They had mostly been careful, but not 100 percent. And the test results Audrey got could not be viewed as accurate until three months had passed.
Feeling as though the room was on fire, I scrolled through the messages my daughter had written over the weeks since then (with my own hopeful, plaintive notes scattered throughout: “Tell me what’s going on! I miss you, honey!”). There were letters to the American embassy inquiring about Johnny emigrating to the United States if he were married to an American citizen. Letters inquiring about the options for treatment for both of them back home. If she came home.
But for the moment, Audrey was still living with Johnny. Loving a man with whom she could not make love. Uncertain of her own health.
All I wanted, reading this news, was to jump on the first plane to the Dominican Republic, throw my arms around my daughter. Only to do so, I would have to admit to having done this terrible thing.
When I was very young, my mother read my diary. And though I loved my mother, I don’t think I ever forgave her. Now I had opened my daughter’s e-mail account so I could know the truth, and the truth had brought nothing but terror and the awareness of my own powerlessness.
Two months after discovering her secret, I broke into my daughter’s e-mail account one last time. That was the day I learned she’d had the second H.I.V. test and was O.K. I promised myself I would never again violate her that way.
The person I picked up at the airport looked different from the one I’d put on the plane eight months before. Audrey had been to a place that no one in our family would ever know or fully be able to imagine. As we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge to our comfortable Marin County home, it appeared to me as though my daughter, the most hopeful person I knew, was not just tired but weary of life.
In the days that followed, she told her brothers and me little of her time abroad, and almost nothing of Johnny or the one-room shack they had shared, though one day she called him, and afterward her face was streaked with tears.
I had recently purchased a 20-year-old Mercedes convertible — my first non-Mom car. Now I made Audrey a proposal: to take a road trip — top down — all the way up the coast to the border of British Columbia. I was headed to see the man who was my boyfriend. Though really, the only destination that mattered to me was reaching what I took to be the dark and broken place in my daughter’s heart. If she would just tell me what I already knew, I could offer comfort at last.
But she was understandably dubious about this trip. We had a history of stormy times, particularly when traveling.
“I don’t know about this plan, Mama,” she said. “I feel like being mellow for a while.”
I told her we’d take as long as we wanted. I had only one agenda, but I didn’t talk about that. So we packed our gear and hit the road. We had hiking shoes, backpacks, maps to hot springs, some of her music, some of mine.
North we went through Mendocino and into Oregon. One afternoon we sat naked in a hot spring for nearly three hours in silence. On the Oregon coast we took off our shoes and ran on the dunes. We stayed at a tourist cabin in Washington, where I bought Audrey a painted fungus of a cabin by a field in the woods that reminded us of our old house in New Hampshire. The simple days, or that’s how I remembered them.
And then we were within an hour of our destination — the ferry in Port Townsend, Wash., where Audrey and I would say goodbye. She was taking a bus south to visit college friends, though I imagined that her old life felt very distant now.
Even now, I can picture the stretch of road we were driving at that moment, and I remember the ballad Van Morrison was singing as we traveled it.
“I want to tell you something, Mama,” she said. “It might make you mad.”
“There’s nothing you can’t say to me,” I told her, gathering breath.
“This is a very hard thing.”
I pulled the car over onto the shoulder and turned off the engine. I held my daughter’s hand and felt the beating of my heart.
“Back in the winter,” she began, “Johnny and I took this test.”
There was not a lot to be said. I told her I’d do whatever I could to help, but I knew the problems my daughter had faced, those last months, were no longer the kind a parent can fix.
The ferry at Port Townsend was next to the place where Audrey would catch the bus, so we rode together right up to the landing. Out of the trunk of the Mercedes I lifted her backpack and hat, the painted fungus, a bag of raw almonds for the long bus ride and two $20 bills — all the things a mother gives her child when there is something else the child needs that’s nowhere to be found.
After we said goodbye, I drove the car onto the ferry and climbed out, so I could stand on deck as the boat motored out of the harbor.
It would take six years for me to tell my daughter how I’d broken into her e-mail account. Understandably, she felt betrayed. She managed to forgive me — not only forgive me, but allow me to tell this story. Fiercely loyal as she is to the suffering people of Haiti, she asked that I clarify it was in the Dominican Republic, not in Haiti, that Johnny contracted H.I.V. Not all the bad things in the Caribbean happen in Haiti, she reminded me.
And one more thing she would say, after hearing me describe my anguish over those many months, and my obsession with making everything all right for her, when of course I couldn’t: “I wasn’t really that broken person you pictured. By the time I got home from my time in the D.R., I’d worked through a lot of the most difficult parts of this experience. I was in a stronger place for the lessons I’d learned.”
Over the years since, Audrey has gone three times to Haiti. She has accompanied Johnny to Dr. Paul Farmer’s life-saving clinic in the mountains, and Johnny is alive. She has fallen in love a few times, gone to graduate school to pursue the path of school counseling. This summer, she will return once more to Port-au-Prince.
“You don’t need to try and fix my life any more, Mama,” she tells me. “I can handle that part on my own.”
It is a lesson long in the learning, though the first intimations of this came to me that summer day seven years ago, when I stood on the deck of the ferry to catch a last glimpse of my daughter waving to me from the shore, with her pink hat and long braid and her wide, bright smile. We stood that way, waving, for a long time, as the boat moved steadily away from land — she in one country, I heading toward another, until she was just a dot on the horizon, same as I must have been to her.
We were off to live our lives.
Joyce Maynard lives in California. Her latest novel, “Labor Day,” will be published July 28 by William Morrow.
The good daughters, by Joyce Maynard
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
The Good Daughters
By Joyce Maynard
(William Morrow; 288 pages; $24.99)
Joyce Maynard is well known for her dogged attempt, over almost four decades, to reveal herself to her readers. Comparing Maynard to Monica Lewinsky, Maureen Dowd once called her "the Leech Woman of the Boomer generation ... indefatigably exhibitionistic."
In her first book, "Looking Back," published in 1972 when Maynard was 18, she offers her views on TV shows, fashion, school and sex. "Domestic Affairs," a collection of her syndicated columns, chronicles her harried days in New Hampshire with three small children, a series of babysitters, and a husband less talkative and emotional than she.
Most famous, her memoir "At Home in the World" discloses how the letters J.D. Salinger wrote to the teenage Maynard, praising her young talents and warning against exploitation, led to Maynard's quitting college and moving in with Salinger, 35 years her senior. In an author's note, Maynard anticipates that her depiction of Salinger will be seen as an invasion of the writer's privacy. But, she insists, "I have tried hard to describe only those events and experiences that had a direct effect on the one story I believe I have a right to tell completely: my own." Her efforts produced a painfully intimate book.
Maynard's latest novel, "The Good Daughters," suffers from a lack of such unnerving intimacy. The placid story follows Ruth Plank and Dana Dickerson from birth into their 50s. The two were born hours apart in the same New Hampshire hospital, prompting Ruth's mother to call them "birthday sisters," though it's not until the end of the novel that they begin to feel a connection to each other. Things happen to them, as things will, over the course of half a century: They find love and heartache; seek meaningful work; bemoan, defy and forgive their parents. As we alternate between their two perspectives, we might come to feel some sympathy for the desires and losses that Ruth and Dana endure. Unfortunately, though, we never really get to know them.
Ruth is the youngest of four sisters, and this fact about the Plank family is of some importance to the story, but we barely learn anything specific about any of them. "All of my sisters were unusually earnest, literal people, with virtually no trace of a sense of humor," Ruth says dismissively. Really, all four - not even a trace? This sort of characterization reminds the reader too explicitly of the writer's prerogative to generalize for the sake of convenience. It serves Maynard's narrative purpose to single out Ruth as unique among her sisters. But painted with such broad strokes, the portrayal of the Planks is plank-like, flat.
In a brief, passionate chapter, Ruth swoons over a love affair with Dana's brother Ray, whom she has pined for since childhood, but soon their relationship mysteriously - or perhaps not so mysteriously, depending on your ability to suss out plot twists - comes to an end. This relationship is affecting in that it seems both achingly right and doomed to fail. Still, the idea of Ray as the one and only love of Ruth's life feels overly simplistic. When she marries another man and her father refers to the wedding as her "big day," Ruth thinks, "I'd had a big day already. I needed no more of those. Only small ones from now on. Regular days for the rest of my life."
There's a kind of weary fatalism to Ruth and Dana's middle decades that is perhaps realistic, but novelistically unsatisfying. It's OK (up to a point, anyway) for a character to be going through the motions of living, but the writer must never seem to be going through the motions of writing. She must stay alert to idiosyncrasy and nuance until the end of her characters' days.
Maynard's autobiographical work compels because of her ability to relentlessly explore her experience. At the end of "At Home in the World," she reports that in her last conversation with Salinger he said to her hatefully, "The problem with you, Joyce, is ... you - love - the - world." Some might say she loves herself too much. But she's adored by many readers for her detailed accounts of her ambitious, difficult and pleasurable life. For a writer as bursting with feeling as Maynard, "The Good Daughters" is surprisingly muted.
Polly Rosenwaike is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Years after writing the 1972 New York Times Magazine essay that would make her famous as a voice of her generation (and ignite a brief love affair with J.D. Salinger), Joyce Maynard dissected that essay in her 1998 memoir At Home in the World.
In it, she accused her 18-year-old self of a "fundamental dishonesty" in that Times essay. She said the essay was an effort by a "quintessential Good Daughter" to portray herself as "normal, happy, well-adjusted." The darker truth, she wrote, was that she was an almost maniacally driven anorexic with an alcoholic father. She went on to call her first memoir, Looking Back, published when she was 19, "facile" and "glib," and to accuse herself of giving readers "the tidy version" of herself.
This is a recurring theme for Maynard—she sells readers a version of her life, and then she confesses later that the previous version wasn't the whole truth. For years she wrote a syndicated column about family life. In her 1998 memoir she revealed how in that column she had often imposed humor and "tidy endings" on an unraveling marriage.
Now, at the age of 56, after decades of writing, Maynard should be sensitive to this compulsion to impose a neat narrative on life. And indeed, the title of her newest novel, The Good Daughters, suggests that the plot will grapple with the gulf between who young women are and who they think they should be. This is a promising and universal theme—we are all memoirists at dinner parties and playgroups, and who among us hasn't subtly tailored a story to her audience? And she has some ingredients for real drama, including a gift for scene-setting, and an intriguing plot based on the real-life story of two Oregon women widely reported last year. But tackling such questions is difficult, nuanced work, and tidiness, apparently, can be a kind of addiction. The Good Daughters reads as if midway through writing the author decided, "Eh, screw it, I'll make it a beach read."
The novel concerns two girls who are born in a small New Hampshire hospital on the same day in 1950. Their lives intersect over and over until at last they discover some big secrets about who they are. At least one of these "secrets" is obvious from the first pages of the book, perhaps intentionally so; Maynard's writing is so agile in places and so ham-handed in others, it's hard to know what she intends.
The "birthday sisters" are perfectly opposite to a degree that could exist only in fiction, the one a dreamy artist and the other a hardened realist. Alas, the realist (Dana) is cursed with clichés instead of parents—shiftless proto-hippies surrounded by yogurt cultures and beet juice and failed dreams. At one point, Dana's father hatches a plan to make money selling flowers, buying seeds and instructing his children to "toss them in the ground wherever we wanted ... to let the seed find its own way into the soil." This, of course, allows Maynard the obvious metaphor: "I knew, even then, no seedlings would ever take root that way."
Dana is everything her parents aren't: careful with money while they're careless, attached to place while they are itinerant. Her mother, a willowy, blond painter, adores Barbie dolls and scarves while Dana—dark, short, and thick-waisted, fond of science and overalls—is drawn like a caricature of a budding butch lesbian. In fact, she is a budding butch lesbian. Dana prefers nonfiction (presumably because it's so real), and one afternoon on a farm she takes a nap in the soil (because she's so rooted!). Dana reveals to readers that she loves the no-nonsense secretary Miss Jane Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies because she's "the one sane character in the bunch. Something among her long thin frame and her plainness, even homeliness—particularly set off by the frilly excesses of Elly May—stirred my heart."
Maynard's awkwardness and lack of subtlety—the way she forces her characters, like a pushy therapist, to articulate exactly how they feel—wouldn't be so frustrating if she didn't also show herself capable of fine writing. Years ago, in an interview with the Times, she described herself not as a "literary" author but as a "journeyman writer," and there's a candor in that. It's just that on occasion she proves she can be more.
The Good Daughters sketches delicious scenes of life on a farm, riding a tractor, cultivating strawberries. Maynard's writing is most potent in love scenes—the platonic love between a girl and her father, the ecstatic frenzy in this scene between young lovers:
He brought me presents: a kitten from a little girl he'd met in front of the food co-op who had a box of them to give away. A bottle of green drawing ink and a brush made from a lock of his own hair, tied to a piece of bone. ... One day he came back from town with fresh oysters, also gathered on the beach, with the plan of feeding them to me, but he couldn't get them open, so finally, after an hour of trying, he drove back to the beach to set them free again.
If the central characters of The Good Daughters were real, you can imagine them looking back in 20 years and, like Maynard herself, demanding a do-over. (Excise that seedling metaphor, Dana would tell her creator over the phone. Give readers some credit. And nobody on the planet ever thought Jane Hathaway was hot.) Maynard's places are more textured than her people, who are like wind-up toys sent in straight lines across a carpet, obeying transparent and predictable motives. If she dug deeper, she might get more plausible detail, more mixed emotions, more of the muck and beauty of real life.
But it's little wonder that glibness shows up in the fiction of a writer who has struggled with it when writing about the subject she knows best. Writing of any sort—memoir, fiction, poetry—rings true when an author has allowed herself to become intimate with her audience. But Maynard, despite her constant patter of self-reporting, resists intimacy. And who can blame her? Maybe any of us, had we been packaging our lives for public consumption since we were teens, would take up glibness as protection against true exposure.
If you go to Maynard's Web site, you will discover newsletters about her recent experiences adopting children from Ethiopia and a video she posted of herself making pie. "You may notice that I am not making all these [apple] slices uniform—because life isn't like that," she says. "The metaphor could go on and on between pie and life."
Yes, the metaphor could go on and on.
Libby Copeland is a former reporter for the Washington Post, now writing in New York.
Friday, October 1, 2010
Joyce Maynard's "The Good Daughters," reviewed by Carolyn See
By Carolyn See
THE GOOD DAUGHTERS
By Joyce Maynard
William Morrow. 278 pp. $24.99
I was just sitting down to write a stern review of Joyce Maynard's new novel, "The Good Daughters," when I myself received a vigorous piece of hate mail. I don't get that much of it -- and please don't feel you have to rectify that situation! Usually, it comes in defense of a particular writer, but this woman just disapproved of me across the board. It left me bewildered for the rest of the day. "We're all just doing the best we can," I thought, and as my old Texan dad would have said. "An angel would do no worse, and a donkey would do no better." Then I began to think that maybe the universe was issuing me a friendly warning: Don't pick on Joyce Maynard. An angel can do no worse . . . .
Still! There are quite a few things wrong with "The Good Daughters," having to do with character, plot, general interest and plausibility. It's the critic's job to say something about those things.
In 1949, in the course of a world-class hurricane, Edwin Plank, a New England farmer and volunteer fireman, sets out to clear a downed tree. He looks forward to getting home in time to make love to his wife, even though she's no erotic picnic. She has a "short, utilitarian body," and she's already thinking her own grumpy thoughts: "Her husband may bother her in bed tonight. She had been hoping the World Series would keep him occupied a while." But Edwin gets sidetracked.
Flash-forward to the Fourth of July 1950, when two daughters are born on the same day to different families in the local hospital. One of these babies, Ruth Plank, will grow up to ponder this event in her early years: "My mother never took to me as she did to my sisters. . . . I was different from my sisters. Different from my mother most of all." Ruth is tall, thin and blond, and wants to be an artist. Her sisters and mom are short-waisted and thick. The Dickerson family lives just down the road. The Dickerson mom, Val, is tall, thin, blond and an artist. Her daughter, Dana, born on that same eventful day, is short, stubby, thick-waisted. "I'm not sure I ever felt I had parents," Dana says. And one of her teachers, just to confirm this, writes on a report card, "Dana has her feet firmly grounded on earth."
The daughters are criminally slow on the uptake. Ruth's real mother is Val Dickerson; Dana's real mother is Connie Plank, a humorless woman who compulsively reads her Bible and seems always to be putting on pots of beans for everyone to eat, although the Plank family farm grows a vast array of tasty vegetables and, in particular, strawberries, which are reputed to be the best in the neighborhood.
Time passes. President Kennedy is assassinated; man walks on the moon. There's the Vietnam War. By this time we know that short, thick-waisted Dana Dickerson, who really should be one of the Plank sisters, is extremely interested in farming, just like Edwin Plank. She's also, by now, a lesbian. Tall, blond, thin Ruth Plank, who really should be a Dickerson, has fallen in love with the Dickerson son, Ray, who has "a wild, birdlike grace." The reader knows this is a bad idea because they're brother and sister, but that's what plots are made of.
The story is told in alternating chapters by Ruth and Dana, and another way you can tell they're half sisters is that they speak in exactly the same voice. It's an orderly, prim voice, and decidedly aggrieved. (Of course they would be aggrieved, since neither woman feels she's been loved by her "mother," and of course both women are right about that -- as far as they know.)
The plot is close to 100 percent implausible. Poor Ray Dickerson, for instance, has to be dumb enough that he doesn't recognize his own sister. Edwin, painted by both daughters as a paragon among men, commits an egregious crime against humanity with no particular motivation -- he just feels like doing it. (He also manages to have sex with his uninterested wife so close to the time of his escapade with Val Dickerson that the issue of both these sexual acts are born on the same day.) Most preposterous of all is a series of scenes from pages 147 to 150, where Ruth is "made" to do entirely unbelievable things. She explains it all away by this: "The world went dark. . . . I screamed and wept. . . . I know all kinds of things must have happened. . . . I could only believe I had lost my mind."
It's like those old movies that used to be made at Republic Studios, in which the hero is stuck outside the castle. He has to get in, but the castle is impregnable. Next scene: He's inside the castle. In novelistic terms, Ruth does something entirely unbelievable because the author wants her to. End of story.
In sum, then: The characters here are nearly indistinguishable. The plot is both predictable and implausible. It's very hard to read this novel. Yes, I know. We're all doing the best we can. But in this instance, I feel, the author could have done a lot better.
See reviews books regularly for The Post.
Joyce Maynard on this site, here and here and here