The Good Daughters, by Joyce Maynard
JOYCE MAYNARD on the N Y TIMES
San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Joyce Maynard was stepping off the plane in San Francisco from Ethiopia, where she had adopted two young girls, when she heard the news: Her onetime love, the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger, had just died.
"How did I feel?" Maynard asked of that day in late January. "Ohhh, I felt sadness, but also relief. Relief that I was no longer defined by the past, that I was no longer concerned with the rearview mirror, but was, instead, looking at the road ahead."
The road for Maynard, who lives in Mill Valley and has written seven novels and five works of nonfiction, has been full of twists and turns, emotions protected and emotions purged. Her life has been rich and messy, with children, marriage, divorce, love, loss and words.
Throughout, though, Maynard, 56, has been unable to put to rest her nine-month relationship with Salinger, which happened when she was 18 and he was 53.
'He changed my life'
"When I was young, he changed my life," Maynard said, sitting in her home situated on a steep hillside with views of Mount Tamalpais. "But now, finally, I'm at a point in life where I don't need to think about whether I'm making everyone happy, whether it's J.D. Salinger, my parents or the editorial department of the New York Times. I have a new future, starting now."
Maynard also has a new book out, "The Good Daughters," a saga set in rural New Hampshire that follows the mysteriously entwined lives of two women conceived during a tornado and born hours apart. The book spans 50 years and is replete with love and heartbreak and family secrets that slowly unravel. In addition, the paperback edition of her 2009 book, "Labor Day," was released over the summer.
And, in response to Salinger's death, Maynard has written a new author's note for an updated edition of "At Home in the World," the controversial memoir published in 1998 about her time living with Salinger - a book she defends by saying, "It is not a book about Salinger; it is a book about me."
Smiling, she added, "There is a theme that runs through my work, and that is: the toxic property of keeping secrets. 'The Good Daughters' revolves around a secret. Because there is this secret, lives are damaged. I go back and back to themes of secrecy; I'm not a big one on keeping secrets."
Maynard, who is girlish in jeans and sneakers, sits on a sofa in her living room. Self-deprecating and quick to laugh, she says that the tough times of her life - divorce, loss of loved ones, literary dry spells and being castigated for writing about Salinger - have given her "nerves of steel."
"Some people wouldn't sleep with the stress of it all," she said, "but I'm adaptable."
Behind her are dozens of colorful masks, which she sees as benevolent spirits for her writing. On the ceiling is a playing card, launched there by a hobbyist magician who had come for one of her pie-baking parties (Maynard learned the art of pie at the elbow of her mother and now loves to teach others).
Her adopted girls, Bee and Almaz, ages 7 and 11, were off to their first day of school, Bee in first grade and Almaz as a fifth-grader.
"Adopting them is something I've always wanted to do, and it was made possible by 'Labor Day,' " she said of the proceeds of the book, which is being adapted for film. "They lost their mother to AIDS. Their father is HIV positive. They are negative and were living in an orphanage. When we came home at the end of January, they didn't speak a word of English. I guess I hadn't gotten over the love of taking care of children."
She said her habit of writing while isolated in a cabin in the woods will have to change now that children are back in the house.
"The process of writing has always started for me when I put myself in a place where no one distracts me. 'The Good Daughter' was written when I was sequestered away at a cabin in Montana. I wrote it in a white heat, in a month. I stayed up all night writing. Then I spent the next six months making it better."
Maynard acknowledges, "One life is not enough for me. I want to go lots of places. In 'Labor Day,' I got to be a 13-year-old boy. I raised two sons, now in their 20s. I love teenage boys. In 'The Good Daughters,' I got to be on a farm that has been in a family for over 350 years."
Looking around her lovely home, which she says she bought because of the deep kitchen counters - perfect for making pie - she mused, "I've had some wonderful successes and some extreme disappointments in my career and my life. But I feel indescribably lucky that I get to do this for a living."
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.
Posted Friday, Aug. 27, 2010, at 7:29 AM ET
Joyce Maynard, Glib All Over Again
A review of Joyce Maynard's The Good Daughters.
By Libby Copeland
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.
The Dallas Morning News
Published 03 October 2010 02:28 AM
Book review: 'The Good Daughters' by Joyce Maynard
By JOY TIPPING
The Good Daughters
William Morrow, $24.99
Joyce Maynard's new novel hangs on a couple of plot twists so clichéd that one might be tempted to call them gimmicks. One of the supposed surprises will have been guessed by most readers somewhere around Page 20. The other comes as more of a shock.
But one reads Maynard for characters, not plots, and indeed, this is one of those books where nothing much seems to happen. Even when it does - two characters unexpectedly run into one another at Woodstock, for instance - the outward activity can't begin to match, or be as interesting as, the inner turmoil.
The author's deft and delicate touch as she plumbs the depths of her characters' psyches is what will keep readers pinned to the page. It's like a conversation with friends about whose lives you crave every detail, simply because they are so dear to you.
The book centers on a New Hampshire farm family, the Planks, and their friends the Dickersons. Two of the families' daughters, Ruth Plank and Dana Dickerson, are born on the same day in 1950, in the same hospital, becoming lifelong "birthday sisters," as one mother puts it.
Ruth and Dana couldn't be more different from each other or their respective families. Ruth, the artsy one, tries valiantly to please her farm-stock parents by caring about the strawberries and cows. Salt-of-the-earth Dana can't comprehend her flighty mom, or her wandering dad, who leaves the family for long stretches while testing get-rich-quick schemes.
The one area where the girls agree is on the wonders of Ray, Dana's wild, mercurial brother. Dana adores him as an older cohort; for Ruth, he's the childhood crush she never quite outgrows. "This is what happened when Adam met Eve, I thought," she recalls of their first kiss, when she's in junior high and he's 17. "Here comes the devil."
The Dickersons eventually move away from the Planks, but the families stay connected, and Ruth and Dana become something like deep-rooted trees: On the surface, they seem separate, sturdy, independent. Under the topsoil, they're intertwined at the roots; you get the feeling that if one were seriously uprooted, the other would likewise topple.
Maynard's simple language gorgeously interprets the book's themes. Ruth, describing swimming with her dad, recalls "my father in his shorts, me in my underwear, our two pairs of shoes (his heavy boots and my Keds) lined up along the shore, side by side." I'm surprised the publishers didn't choose that image for the book's cover, it's so evocative of innocence, the parent-child connection, the past communing with the future.
When the second big denouement comes toward the end of the book, you're likely to be surprised but not terribly so. In Maynard's gifted hands, every sentence and step seems organic, as if she were just keenly observing these women and taking richly detailed notes on their lives.
Oct 15, 2010
The Good Daughters: Joyce Maynard
The Good Daughters:
Joyce Maynard is best known for having had a relationship with JD Salinger when she was still in her teens, an experience recounted in the discreetly titled memoir At Home in The World. Over the subsequent decades she has strived to carve out her own identity as a novelist. Alas, her seventh work of fiction won't convince many doubters. Ruth Plank and Dana Dickerson are born on the same day in 1950, in the same town in New Hampshire. Ruth is a fanciful beanpole born to a stocky, pragmatic mother; Dana a thick-torsoed aspirant farmer born to a waifish artist who only wants to be surrounded by beautiful things.
The girls go their separate ways, and in alternating chapters narrate their adventures with sex, love, and grief, as well as their lingering sense of not fitting into their respective families. Don't second-guess yourself, you can see where this is going. Indeed, the twist is so heavily signposted there's little to do but enjoy the scenery on the way: a panoramic view of the hippy generation, seen from such a hurtling distance that the human figures all seem strangely small and still.
NEW ZEALAND Woman’s Weekly
January 17, 2011
The Good Daughters, by Joyce Maynard
Precocious teenager Joyce Maynard wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine when she was 18 years old, which changed her life forever.
The story – and her photo – caught the eye of American literary icon JD Salinger, author of the bestseller The Catcher in the Rye, and more than three decades her senior. He instigated an exchange of letters and soon after, she dropped out of college and moved in with him, only to be dumped less than a year later.
Joyce remained tight-lipped on the subject of the fiercely private Salinger until 1999 when she recounted their affair in her memoir, At Home in the World. At the time she came in for quite some criticism from people who felt she was exploiting their literary hero.
“I wonder,” she wrote in response, “why you are so quick to see exploitation in the actions of a woman – sought out at 18 by a man 35 years her senior, who promised to love her forever and asked her to forswear all else to come and live with him… And yet you cannot see exploitation in the man who did this.”
Why am I telling you this? Because she sounds like a very interesting woman so we can expect her to write very interesting books, that’s why.
Her fabulous 2009 bestseller Labor Day looked at one very strange makeshift family brought together by most unusual circumstances over the course of a weekend.
This new one takes two girls born in the same small town on the same day and traces their very different lives for half a century until it brings them neatly back to the very beginning.
Joyce writes, she says, about big, dramatic events, and if at times her stories seem far-fetched, so too is the one about a teenager running away from home to live with a world-famous author three times her age. But that happened.