(b. 1953)

Site: www.joycemaynard.com





One day's extraordinary loss

By Kathy Balog, Special for USA TODAY

Loss is the stuff of literature. In a post-9/11 America, striking the balance between emotional vetting and poetic therapy is tricky. Scores of books, documentaries and photographic essays have captured the day's devastating toll on victims and on Americans' psyche.

The day has also cultivated the strange familiarity of a long-ago TV show in syndication, the constant sickly loop of horrific news events embedded in our memories: the fateful Dallas motorcade, a young Vietnamese girl fleeing a bombing campaign with her clothes burned off, the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles dragging an ominous fountain of white streamers, the ash-covered walking dead and shower of free-falling bodies as the World Trade Center towers fell.


Joyce Maynard


Now, 9/11's aftermath serves as the centerpiece of Joyce Maynard's new novel, The Usual Rules, about the consequences of the day's violence on one fictional family. Their losses are echoed in the daily struggles of other characters: a homeless teen, a young single mother not doing a very good job of caring for her newborn, the ties that make or divide all families. Maynard explores the idea of family as much as she examines the culture of loss.

It's the tale of one family's breakdown after the death of their mother and how they manage to reassemble themselves without her. The central story revolves around 13-year-old Wendy, a rather ordinary girl, who is living with her mother, stepfather and half-brother in Brooklyn.

One day her mother goes to work and never comes back. Wendy, in the throes of puberty and feeling the alienation many 13-year-olds feel toward their family and others, must go on living. Wendy remembers the times she wished that her mom would drop dead for not understanding her.

Most haunting, she recalls the unremarkable morning she left for school, never to see her mother again. "Why don't you stick your head in the bedroom and say goodbye to your mom," her stepfather, Josh, urges. "I'm late already," she tells him fliply, running out the door.

"Later, Wendy would think back on that morning, trying to remember every single thing. She would remember the smell of butter in the pan and the sound of Josh singing along with Madonna, the gold of the sun hitting the roof of the church across the street from their apartment," all the routine events of a day marked by her mother's death.

If only she could rewind it, get her mother back. "She would list all the things she would do — cut off her hair, cut off her arm, both legs, gain fifty pounds, two hundred, never have a boyfriend, never have anybody fall in love with her for her whole life, stand naked in front of her whole gym class ... if she could just return to how it was before."

Maynard's feel for the workings of a 13-year-old's internal voice distinguishes The Usual Rules in the same way writer Judy Blume did a generation earlier in Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. (In fact, the two authors are friends.) Like Margaret, Wendy learns she has an internal compass separate from her parents and the expectations of others.

What makes Maynard's storytelling effective is that we are drawn into caring for Wendy's future despite her childishness, her clashes with a mother she feels she can never equal, her dislike of her loving stepfather and sense of disloyalty to a father who suddenly shows up and can't make up for the life she took for granted while her mother was alive.

Maynard captures the already compromised emotional state of a girl who is enduring tremendous loss, uprooted and feeling betrayed by most of what she has come to trust. Her innocence abruptly ends with the sudden shifting structure of how she defines her family.

With so many books about real 9/11 survivors who are struggling to reclaim their lives after loss, Maynard's fictional survivor provides deeper solace than the spiritual cheerleading that often applies to coping with loss in our culture.

Wendy's reconnection with the world and her discovery of what makes a family is more complex. For the scores of us who struggle with our own imperfect family relationships, it is also more authentically hopeful.

Maynard's Wendy is not glib; she speaks to a generation of young girls who are trying to navigate through a culture of loss, of wanting to belong to a family and at the same time free themselves from the usual rules. Maynard shows how true families often allow for more flexibility.



Official site

Unofficial site (Anthony Risser)

N Y Times



February 16, 2003

'The Usual Rules': Lost Girl


By Joyce Maynard.
390 pp. New York: St. Martin's Press. $24.95

Wordsworth's prescription for successful poetic writing called for emotion recollected in tranquillity, but in the post-millennial world his advice is decidedly outdated. As if to prove it, a mere 18 months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the intrepid Joyce Maynard has delivered one of the first novels incorporating that day's horrific events.

The unlikely heroine of ''The Usual Rules'' is Wendy, a 13-year-old eighth grader who lives in Brooklyn with her mother, the effervescent Janet (who was named after one of the Lennon sisters and then named her own daughter after the character in ''Peter Pan''); her stepfather, Josh, a jazz musician who plays the bass but spends most of his time being a nearly perfect househusband; and her 4-year-old half brother, Louie.

The action begins on the morning of 9/11, and initially Wendy's youthful perspective is off-putting. Although ''Diary of a Young Girl'' pops up in the narrative as an influential book, Wendy is no Anne Frank. Like most other American teenage girls, she broods about her weight: ''Later, she would consider what she was doing at the exact second it happened. Walking up to the pencil sharpener in front of the room and wondering, as she sharpened her pencil, if anyone was thinking she looked fat.'' At first, it seems that Maynard (author of the winsome satirical novel ''To Die For'') has made a disastrous choice. After the second tower falls, one of Wendy's classmates says, ''Oh my God. . . . This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.''

But the banality of this observation is perhaps deliberate. For most people, there was nothing more profound to say about 9/11 than that. Certainly, this is true for Wendy, whose doting mother, once an aspiring dancer, worked as an executive secretary on the 87th floor of one of the towers. On 9/11, Janet went to work wearing a red dress and her favorite strappy red sandals. She never came home.

On Halloween, Wendy's real father, lanky, handsome Garrett, a failed artist divorced by Wendy's mother for his irresponsibility and all-around cheating, shows up at the door of the Brooklyn apartment and demands that Wendy come back to California with him. She is still numb, ''feeling like a person in a play who's trying to remember her lines,'' and she can't think of any reason not to go. Her best friend, Amelia, assures her: ''You could think of it as a getaway. Like when my mom goes to a spa.''

On the West Coast, in the low-key college town of Davis, just outside Sacramento, it is as if the disaster never occurred. Wendy and her father don't watch television news, listen to the radio or surf the Internet. There's hardly a newspaper in sight. A few people mention Sept. 11, but Wendy tells almost no one about her mother, and so the horror and anguish associated with this event almost disappear. Her mother might as well have drowned or died in a car accident -- a sad occurrence, but not socially, politically or historically significant.

It's not surprising, then, that as Wendy begins what's popularly known as the grieving process, she concludes that in the wake of a catastrophe like 9/11 ''the usual rules'' of life no longer apply. On her first day at her new school, she simply walks off the playing field during a morning gym class and begins a sort of modern American walkabout. Cutting classes to wander aimlessly, she meets other people life has touched in odd and difficult ways: Alan, who sells used books (and feeds Wendy titles like ''The Member of the Wedding'') and goes once a week to a group home to visit his autistic son; Violet, a 16-year-old high-school dropout and single mom trying to make it on her own; Todd, a skateboard prodigy and runaway in search of his older brother, another runaway.

The book works best when Maynard is populating Wendy's world with reasons to live. Wendy loves to read and draw. She plays the clarinet and adores old musicals and classic jazz. However, the story is more than a touch diagrammatic. Wendy spends most of her days by herself in California, stumbling upon nothing but enriching situations that underscore Maynard's message of redemption and hope.

The dissonance between a world in which the 9/11 tragedy can happen and Wendy's subsequent Neverland, where nothing threatening looms and no one even curses, is disconcerting. There is never any fear that Wendy, unsupervised in a strange place, staggering beneath a loss that has damaged her forever, will fall through the cracks. There's little evidence of drugs or alcohol in ''The Usual Rules.'' There's divorce among well-meaning people, but hardly any rancor. Everyone is good. This does make for uplift -- ''The Usual Rules'' succeeds in being a sunny novel, despite its premise -- but sunniness doesn't make for particularly compelling drama.

Maynard is a devotee of the life-affirming aphorism, and every character has his or her own kitchen-table wisdom to dispense. When Wendy turns 14, her father takes her to San Francisco to the Palace of the Legion of Honor to look at some Rodin sculptures, an exercise he prefaces by saying: ''First he learned what the rules were. . . . Then he threw them all away.'' He finishes his sermon by observing that ''making art isn't about creating something pretty . . . any more than life is. It's about telling the truth.'' On a train trip Wendy makes alone, the porter wonders why she doesn't fly to her destination and she says, ''I like to see where I'm going . . . even the parts that aren't all that beautiful.'' To which he responds, ''It's all part of life, right?''

I suppose, given the enormity of 9/11 and the devastating toll it's taken on the national psyche, Maynard might be forgiven for collapsing time a bit: a mere six months later, the principal characters are putting their lives back together and moving forward in a way that anyone struggling with deep grief can tell you is a bit speedy. As I write this, I'm sure there are people still crawling out from under 9/11's emotional wreckage.

And yet Maynard does manage to pull a rabbit out of this particular hat. Her gift for creating realistic and heartfelt domestic moments succeeds in convincing us that Wendy has found a reason to go on in the midst of her tremendous sorrow, and that she, like her heroine Anne Frank, still believes ''in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.''

Karen Karbo's most recent novel is ''Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me.''


Motherless Child
'The Usual Rules' by Joyce Maynard

Reviewed by Susan Dooley

Sunday, March 2, 2003; Page BW13

By Joyce Maynard
St. Martin's. 390 pp. $24.95

After the destruction of the World Trade Center, the media tried to give faces to the individuals whose lives had ended, but most people found it hard to see beyond the terror of twisted girders and choking dust. When one person dies, we feel sorrow. When thousands die, we feel shock. In her new novel, The Usual Rules, Joyce Maynard takes away the thousands and gives us one woman who went to work on Sept. 11, wearing a new red dress and high-heeled shoes.

Janet had been a dancer until divorce and the need to support her daughter made her take a job as a secretary in one of the Twin Towers. "She'd be great at getting down stairs," says a friend, trying to reassure that daughter, 13-year-old Wendy. "She slept late. She probably hadn't even got to the building by then," says Wendy, and her stepfather, Josh, remembers that Janet had said she might go and vote before work. It is only Janet's and Josh's 4-year-old son, Louie, who acknowledges the horror by asking, "Does God know about this?"

Janet must be standing in line somewhere, waiting for her turn to use the phone. Or in a hospital. Or suffering amnesia and wandering through the city. The family make up fliers bearing her photograph and stick them up with duct tape. And at last they acknowledge that she won't be coming home.

Wendy, whose point of view the novel takes, is a child voyaging into womanhood with all the dissatisfaction and despair of any normal adolescent girl who knows for a fact that both her body and her mother are betraying her. And though her mother and stepfather had been remarkably tolerant of her scenes, the memories are there to haunt Wendy in the days after Sept. 11. "Now whether she wanted to or not, she saw her mother's slim legs running down the stairs from the eighty-seventh floor. She would've taken off the sandals. Dancer's feet. Red nail polish." When her absent father shows up and insists that she come and live with him in California, Wendy is almost relieved to leave New York and the impossibility of living a life shorn of its center. Her father, Garrett, is totally unlike the caretaking Josh. Garrett is casual to the point of carelessness, not even sure how old his daughter is. He enrolls Wendy in school and then leaves her free to do whatever she wants.

One of the reasons for the cliché "travel broadens" is that when you turn away from the road running through the familiar, you need to open your eyes to see where you're going. Another is that the traveler becomes a person without a history, free, for a while at least, to drop the problems of the past. Wendy can create herself anew, tell people that her father is dead and resurrect her mother. Her baby brother, she confides, has been chosen to be the next Dalai Lama. She remembers how her mother had once told her that they picked the new Dalai Lama when he was a very young child and took him away from his mother to receive special training. "I would never let them do that with Louie," Wendy had said, but her mother had reassured her: "I don't think you need to worry. . . . They usually find the person a little closer to Tibet." In her new world, Wendy can abandon school and read books about other girls who have lost things. She can meet people who have problems, without needing to admit that she has her own. She can learn to see.

Maynard has skillfully woven together the painful present with a lost, idyllic past, first with an imaginative and loving mother, then with a stepfather, a jazz musician who takes care of Wendy as though she were his own. Maynard's adults, though tending toward the unconventional -- musician, artist, grower of cacti -- are generous and flawed and kind. Her children react as children do, not like adults trying to think like kids. The book's one flaw is Maynard's aversion to quotation marks. That device, which some writers use to banish the separation between words that get said and words that are merely thought, is here often unsettling. Even though the rhythm eventually takes hold, it's like being on a train starting up with so many jerks and stutters that it takes a while to accept that the journey is under way.

Maynard took a risk in placing such a well-known and deeply felt event at the core of The Usual Rules. She wanted, she wrote in an afterword, "to know how a child goes on with her life -- how anyone does -- after huge and irrevocable loss of the most abrupt and senseless form." The characters she has created don't forget, but in Maynard's hands they learn once again to live. •

Susan Dooley is a freelance writer living in Maine.


The Examiner

Publication date: 07/11/2002

Shine a light on monsters

Of The Examiner Staff

    Joyce Maynard is best known for her controversial memoir "At Home in The World," detailing her one-year affair with J.D. Salinger when she was 18. Now 48 and the mother of three, she lives in Mill Valley with her dog and is working on a book inspired by the 9/11 tragedy called "The Usual Rules."

    Nina Wu: Is it true that after you wrote the memoir, you went to see Salinger to ask him a question.

    Joyce Maynard: Yes. "What was my purpose in your life?" My own experience is that we are so shaped by our youth. For me, a huge element of my youthful experience was that I gave my total trust -- as much as if it were a religion -- over to a man who then dismissed me and told me I was unworthy.

    I carried around with me for 25 years a sense of shame and failure because I had not succeeded in winning the approval of this person, who at first had approved of me so excessively, who adored me and told me I was a brilliant, perfect girl.

    Q: Was he a father figure?

    A: He was a person of so much intellectual and emotional power and I was searching for someone to guide me, as so many young people are. He told me what to eat, what music to listen to, what books to read, who to speak to, what to write.

    I care a lot about young people and no doubt it has to do with my own experiences. I remember what it was like to grow up in an alcoholic family and to live with a huge, painful, scary situation in our family that we never spoke about.

    That's why I believe in talking about things, even when they're uncomfortable. If you're afraid of monsters under the bed, best thing to do is turn on the lights.

    Q: Why did you decide to break 25 years of silence?

    A: I want to make this plain. It's not as if I hadn't already written books. I had already published three or four novels. I had written very openly about many things ...

    I don't think I have the right to tell what my neighbors are doing behind closed doors. But if a person comes into my life and marks or changes my life, that becomes a part of my story, too.

    My own daughter turned the age I was when I had gone off with Salinger. ... I didn't set out to write a book about him. I wrote a book about myself but it was so unthinkable because it included this story.

    It's a 400-page book that talks about my parents, my marriage, being a single parent, developing as a writer, living in an alcoholic family, many other things.

    Q: But you also put his letters to you up for action at Sotheby's. They sold for $156,500. Did you do it for the money?

    A: Of course. If it weren't for money, I would have donated them. I didn't want to own them. They were a really important document, 50 pages of writing by one of the most important writers of the 20th century who has not been heard from in 40 years, speaking about being a writer, Zen Buddhism, movies, jazz, being a parent and "The Catcher in the Rye." They were not love letters.

    They were Salinger holding forth on the world and where they really should be is in a great university library. Had I been in the position to give them to Yale University, I would have.

    But I have no shame about this. I'm a single parent raising three children. ... I haven't lost a night's sleep over it. Since the book was published, I've received many letters from other women who also had similar experiences with Salinger.

    Q: How did 9/11 impact your life, both personally and professionally?

    A: September was the beginning of what I consider a whole new phase of my life. For the first time in 25 years, I had no children. I really decided this is my moment to head out. So I headed off to write a novel and my first stop was New York. I thought I was going to Hawaii.

    I ended up staying almost a month and walking the streets, taking in every face on every flier that I could, just looking and feeling. ... I read a little item about a child who had lost her mother. She was a child of divorce as my children are and had been raised by a stepfather. That was the genesis of the story.

    Q: You ended up staying in Guatemala several months. What was it about Guatemala that made you stay?

    A: I went straight from midtown Manhattan to this little village. It was so peaceful and simple. I felt very glad to be removed from this turmoil of our own country.

    Here is this country, which has also known extraordinary heartbreak, 30 years of civil war, but the people were carrying on with their lives; the men were fishing in their boats at daybreak. I was writing a book that had absolutely nothing to do with Central America. I was suddenly removed from the car, phone, Internet, television, radio, everything.

    Q: You made your mark early with an article published as the cover of the New York Times Magazine when you were 18.

    A: I've been writing all my life. I can't imagine not being able to communicate what I'm seeing, feeling and share stories.

    I was writing for magazines when I was 12 years old. I was raised in a family very passionate about language. My parents were extraordinary teachers and guides. Complicated people, for sure. I feel a debt to them every day.

    E-mail: nwu@sfexaminer.com


'Rules' explores resilience in the wake of 9-11

By Joan Hinkemeyer, Special To The News
February 21, 2003

We all knew it would happen: fiction springboarding from the Sept. 11 disaster.

Author and journalist Joyce Maynard leads the way with her examination of how grief and loss affect one family, most specifically a 13-year-old girl.

When Wendy loses her mother in the collapse of the World Trade Center, she suddenly realizes that what she assumed to be the usual rules for life no longer apply. Filled with guilt at the times she was petulant and unreasonable with her mother, she also feels adrift at having lost her "real" parent, since her emotionally irresponsible, divorced father, Garrett, lives in distant California.

Joyce Maynard

She might lean on Josh, her mother's nurturing second husband - but at the moment of crisis, Josh is also plunged into grief, along with Wendy's 4-year-old half brother.

Maynard explores the manifestations of shock and grief suffered by each family member and expands her story to include the reactions of outsiders to the suffering.

When a return to any semblance of normalcy seems impossible, Wendy abruptly agrees to live with her father in California, where she won't be faced with the constant reminders of her mother. Maynard uses this move to explore the larger issues of loss with a disparate collection of characters all experiencing it in their own lives.

Still in a daze, Wendy walks away from school the first day and spends time reading at a local bookstore, where she meets the owner, whose autistic son is institutionalized.

A new friend, Violet, is a teenage single mother, estranged from her own mother. Finding herself also unable to meet motherhood's emotional demands, she relinquishes her infant son to adoption.

Todd, a homeless skateboarder Wendy befriends, is seeking his beloved only brother, only to find him and then lose him in a tragic accident.

Garrett's friend, Charlotte, relinquished her illegitimate baby to adoption 20 years earlier, and even Garrett has lived under the cloud of parental disapproval and emotional estrangement.

Yet, when this unlikely collection of souls joins for holiday celebrations, a strangely upbeat, comforting atmosphere reigns, thus paving the way for Maynard's broader theme - the resilience of the human spirit. It's no accident that Charlotte's favorite plants are the cactuses, tough survivors of centuries of existence in harsh growing environments.

Wendy herself is a cactus girl and, like her namesake in J.M. Barrie's immortal children's story, knows that she, like everyone else, will become an adult away from the protected cocoon of childhood. She also realizes, as did her literary namesake, that a mother's love is forever.

Although there's a sense of manipulation about this book, Maynard handles the situation probably as sensitively as any. The question remains as to whether enough time has elapsed since the fateful September day for readers to appreciate this story. Maynard does, however, excel in her depiction of adolescent mood swings and the mindset of 4-year-olds confronting loss and change.

Joan Hinkemeyer is a Denver librarian and freelance writer.



Picking Up the Pieces

By Laurie Stone
Laurie Stone is the author of "Laughing in the Dark: A Decade of Subversive Comedy" and editor of "Close to the Bone: Memoirs of Hurt, Rage and Desire."

February 16, 2003

THE USUAL RULES, by Joyce Maynard. St. Martin's, 390 pp., $24.95.

We need writers who risk conjuring the present, writers who re-create the feel of messy reality, uncombed and unshaved by time. Their accounts will be ripe for revision, but so are books devised with the benefit of history.

The attack on the World Trade Center towers is the ball of wax of our moment, sweeping up into its layers military policy, culture clashes, the politics of oil and new kinds of threats to nations and individuals. The event has become encamped in the imaginations of everyone on the planet, and it can't be compared to other cataclysms because at no previous time has technology delivered so much recorded detail across the globe.

We need "War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know" (Context Books), by William Rivers Pitt, centering on an interview with former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter. There's value in Thomas L. Friedman's analyses of movements against modernity in "Longitudes & Attitudes" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center" (North Point), William Langewiesche offers a nuanced chronicle of the rescue mission and cleanup. The brief, acute obits written by staff writers of Newsday and The New York Times made specific and fleshly the people killed in the disaster.

The writers of these books and articles believe in the value of immediate response and direct testimony, and the combination of their commitment and artfulness - in the selection of telling descriptions and lines of dialogue - make their tales dramatic and informing, both in terms of facts and emotional truth.

Almost immediately after the attacks, arts institutions and publications sent out calls to creative writers for response, and although some writers reckoned with how real-life players were more electrifying than anything they could invent, other writers penned poems, quick takes, memoirs and polemics. Novels will come that will have been branded by these events. For some writers, fiction rather than nonfiction is the pickax that mines the hardest truths. Disappointingly, what seems to be the first novel out of the chute is "The Usual Rules," by Joyce Maynard, a narrative so plodding and unfelt it renders the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as flat and generic as everything else in its embrace.

Whatever larger meaning Sept. 11 may have to Maynard can't be gleaned from this book, since none of the characters thinks about the attacks apart from their effect on one family. On that fateful sunny morning, Wendy, 13, watches her mother, Janet, go off to work, never to return. For nearly 400 pages, recorded from Wendy's perspective, we're shown what happens to her, as well as her 6-year-old brother, Louie, and Janet's second husband, Josh (Louie's father). The problem isn't that the lens is focused on private experience. It's that Maynard doesn't give a fig for her characters and thus can't engage us in their lives.

In the first part of the book, the family absorbs the shocking loss. In the second part, Wendy's distant birth father - an artist manqué and the baddie of sorts of the story - sweeps in and takes her off to live with him in northern California, where she stops going to school and discovers the profound shallowness of her dad. When he tells her his cactus-growing girlfriend of four years can't have kids and she asks why, he shrugs, "I never got into it with her." In the final section of the book, Wendy returns to live with Louie and Josh.

As Wendy's circumstances change, she doesn't alter much, because she's meant to be stalwart throughout. The relationships between the characters aren't pointed either; rather, like sock puppets, people are popped in and out of the text to illustrate cliches about the mourning process and the virtues of family solidarity. While still in New York, Wendy and her best friend attend the funeral of a firefighter neither had met, and the scene is drippingly sentimental, including a tape of the dead man's telling a yarn about him and the boys out on a fishing spree. We hear the whole thing, though we don't learn anything about the girls from the lengthy scene. They're just there, and so are we.

Similarly, we're trapped in Wendy's unprobing mind. The narrator records every detail of a Halloween adventure Wendy had with her brother, for example, but suggests no reasons we should know them or their significance to Wendy. Wendy spends considerable time musing on the irony of such statements of her mother's as "you only live once," and her mother's belief that she was "a lucky woman."

The writing is painfully bland throughout, filled with such honeyed, empty memories as this: "With her mom and Josh, if there was a day Wendy didn't have school and neither one of them was working, they'd nearly always head out on some special family outing. They would go to a museum or the zoo, or take a road trip." Adding to the muzziness, Maynard doesn't use quotation marks to set off dialogue, so we're left to figure out when someone is speaking and when we're back to the narrator's voice. The sentences all sound alike.

With so little of her material realized and so little at stake for Maynard, one wonders why she bothered to write the book. The allure of the sensational topic? It wouldn't be the first time in her career: most notably, perhaps, in her book "At Home in the World," a memoir about her two-year love affair with the notoriously reclusive J.D. Salinger.

In an afterword to "The Usual Rules," in prose as incisive as the narrator's, she says she meant the novel to serve others: "I don't pretend that every child who has experienced huge losses will survive as hopeful and whole as my fictional girl has done on these pages. I only mean to offer a glimpse - for myself, and the young people I love, and others I haven't met yet - of what might be possible, of the light that remains, after a season of darkness, and the spring that follows even the coldest kind of winter."

At this stage as a writer, Maynard should know that few things are more depressing than inspiration. She ought to know the adage, too, that nothing in art - not murder, incest, plague, extraterrestrials or terrorist attacks - is intrinsically dramatic. Only the quality of the mind ranging over such events makes them so.




A tragic tale of Sept. 11, but one that's poorly told

The Usual Rules: A Novel. Joyce Maynard, St. Martin's: 390 pp., $24.95

By Carmela Ciuraru
Special to The Times

March 12 2003

Aside from her 1992 novel "To Die For," adapted into a film starring Nicole Kidman, Joyce Maynard is perhaps best known for her memoir "At Home in the World," which detailed her former relationship with J.D. Salinger -- begun in 1972 when she was a freshman at Yale. Although the famously reclusive author was not the only subject of her book, that aspect of it stirred up a good deal of attention. Some criticized Maynard for exploiting Salinger, while others delighted in her revelations about his many curious habits and occasional cruelty.

Maynard's new novel, "The Usual Rules," takes its subject matter yet again from a controversial source: Sept. 11. The story focuses on a precocious 13-year-old girl named Wendy, whose mother goes to work that morning and never returns.

Until that horrific day, Wendy lives contentedly in Brooklyn with her mother, Janet, stepfather, Josh, and younger half-brother, Louie. It's been almost three years since Wendy has seen her biological father, Garrett, an artist living in Davis, Calif. Whereas Garrett is an unreliable, absent figure, Josh is a patient, devoted father with "the kind of face you'd like to see if you had a problem."

Janet had named her daughter for the "Peter Pan" heroine who "at the darkest moments ... never gave up hope." True to her namesake, after her mother goes missing, Wendy is most concerned for the welfare of 4-year-old Louie, who asks, "Does God know about this?" after seeing footage of a bloody firefighter on television. Rather than erupt in bouts of rage or tears, Wendy feels numbness: "The whole world, everything around her, had turned flat and colorless."

After phoning her father to let him know that Janet is among the missing, Wendy expects nothing further to come of the brief conversation. So it's a shock when Garrett shows up at her apartment a few weeks later and insists on bringing her back to the West Coast with him. This twist is made more implausible by Josh's letting her go with Garrett, who has a history of erratic behavior. "I would tell you it breaks my heart to see you walk out the door," Josh says. "But everyone here is heartbroken anyway. Maybe your best shot is getting out of here."

Adjusting to life with her father is hardly easy; Garrett's idea of stocking the family cupboard includes beef jerky, a package of turkey slices and an array of Healthy Choice dinners in the freezer. Not knowing how long she'll stay with her dad, Wendy spends her days skipping classes and wandering around town. Among her new friends in Davis are Alan, the kind owner of a local bookshop where she enjoys hanging out -- he introduces her to the pleasures of Carson McCullers' work -- and a single teenage mother named Violet.

As Wendy floats aimlessly through her days, unable to fully face the pain of her loss, so too does the novel drift. The author's efforts to offer an "authentic" sense of a teenage girl's interests and concerns seem stilted; for instance, references to pop icons such as Christina Aguilera and Sade are incorporated uneasily throughout.

It's a minor quibble but distracting: In one scene, Violet notes that Madonna wears "23 different outfits" during her concerts. Wendy spots in a magazine article that "if you wanted to see Madonna on the Drowned World Tour, tickets cost three hundred dollars a piece." What these girls express excitement about doesn't sound like what actual teenage girls are enthusiastic about but the author's own notions of that demographic.

The compelling passages in "The Usual Rules" come when Wendy grapples with her recurring trauma, and with being so far away from Josh and Louie. In those moments, Wendy doesn't seem like a mouthpiece for the author's interests and ideas but a girl contending with profound and overwhelming emotions.

She realizes that 50 years from now, her mother might have been "a 90-year-old woman, just getting around to dying," and that many others lost on Sept. 11 could have also lived to be that old. In another moment, it occurs to Wendy that she "had begun to lose her mother that day in September, but it was still happening, a little at a time, as if she had been on a little boat that was very gradually drifting out to sea, or holding on to a balloon that kept on rising, till you couldn't see it anymore."

In such moments, Wendy's spirit, complexity and passion are evident, and she is someone we care about. But part of the problem with "The Usual Rules" is that Maynard seems to want readers to root for all of her characters. Garrett may be a deadbeat dad, but he concedes his failings to his daughter, expresses a desire to change and explains that his own father was a poor role model. Violet is a troubled teen who utters beatific lines about the transformative power of motherhood, including its ability to end her shoplifting habit because "I wanted to be a good role model." Josh is loving and earnest; Louie is innocent and adorable. Hearts of gold abound.

Also, despite some affecting moments, the novel does not seem worthy of using Sept. 11 as its framework. Although the passages on responses to the attacks are well-researched and handled with sensitivity, the novel's thin characters and dialogue are too much the stuff of TV movies. Ultimately, Maynard's novel is too disjointed to convincingly tell its tale.





Excerpt from the book


by Joyce Maynard




Quarter past six. In ten minutes, Wendy would have to get in the shower. Her clock radio came on. a newsman was talking about the elections for mayor of new York City. She switched to music. Madonna.

She went through her new school clothes in her head, thinking up combinations. Her mother said the great thing about the gray pants was how you could wear them with anything, but when she wore them yesterday, she'd felt as if she was playing dress-up. Nobody else in eighth grade had pants like that. She wished she'd gotten the pruple-and-grea-plaid kilt instead, that her mom said was impractical. her mom, who owned three different-colored feather boas and red velvet harem pants, a leopard-print cat suit, and a tutu, not to mention all her old Peachy Puffs getups.

Do you think I'm fat? Wendy said. Her mother was a size four, and they could share clothes now, but Wendy could tell that before long, her clothes would be bigger than her mother's.

Of course not. All I meant was they make you look even slimmer than usual.

I'm fat, aren't I, Wendy told her.

You've got a perfect body. Much nicer than if you were on of those stick-figure types. I always wished I had a shape.

In other words I'm chunky, said Wendy.

You look just right, her mother said. Your bones are bigger, that's all.

Louie opened the door partway, just enough that she could see a corner of his face, eyes crusty, thumb in mouth.

Are you dry?

He told her yes.


There's just this one little drip but it got soaked up in my sleeper suit, so it doesn't count. He stood there holding Pablo, with the old blue ribbon from when Pablo was new wrapped around his thumb. He liked to twirl the tip of the ribbon in his ear with his free hand while he sucked on the thumb of the other hand.

Just don't get any pee on me, she said.

He positioned himself in the bed so every inch of the side closest to Wendy was touching some part of her. She could hear the slurping sound his lips made on his thumb, and his breathing, slow and quiet, still labored from last week's cold.

One two three four. he was counting the rabbits on her pajama bottoms though after twelve or thirteen, he usually gave up.

I dreamed we got a puppy, he said. The two of them had been after their parents about that forever.

What kind?

With spots. Little and fuzzy.

Are you going to school again today? he said.

I already explained to you, Louie. I got to school every day now except Saturday and Sunday. Five days in a row, school and two days home, only probably a lot of times I'll be sleeping over at Amelia's Friday nights.

I want you to stay home with me, he said.

She could hear the shower running in the room next to hers. She called it her parents' bathroom, even though Josh wasn't her real father, only Louie's. It was easier, plus he seemed more like her father than her real one.

You'll be going to school too pretty soon anyway, she told him. Thursday is preschool orientation, remember? You might want to work on not sucking your thumb so much. The other kids might make fun of you.

I changed my mind, he said. I don't want to go to preschool after all. I want to stay home and play with you.

Well, I'm not going to be home, she said. And even if I was, I probably wouldn't play that much.


I'm not in that stage anymore. Once you get to my stage in life, you want to do different kinds of things.


Josh was making French toast. The kitchen smelled of just-ground coffee beans and frying butter. He was playing the Teach Yourself Spanish tape. Part one of her mother's birthday present last month. Part two was the trip to Mexico scheduled for next spring, when Wendy was going to stay at Amelia's or possibly to California to visit her real dad, but she wasn't supposed to count on this. It had been nearly three years since she'd seen him.

Her mother had said they couldn't afford a trip to Mexico, but Josh told her she worried too much. Six months from now, I could get his by a bus, he said, and boy would you ever wish you'd gone on that trip.

The coffeepot made the sound that meant the coffee was ready, Josh poured himself a cup of coffee. Louie hopped in on one foot. He had taken off his cape now and replaced it with the cummerbund from his Aladdin costume. All week he'd been working on his skipping, and now he was circling the table, making little frog jumps. He hadn't figured out yet how to alternate his feet.

¡Hola, muchacho! said Josh.

Blabbyblaba, Louie said. Where's my cereal?

Josh had already poured it. At your servicio, señor.

The voice on the tape was reviewing yesterday's lesson. ¿Donde esta la estacion central de autobus? he repeated.

Wendy studied Josh's face as he stood at the stove, holding the spatula. She had been wondering if people looked different right after they had sex, but he looked the same as usual. His hair was going in all different directions, but it always did first thing in the morning. He hadn't shaved yet, and he was wearing the same old green sweatpants and his Yankees T-shirt from last summer's subway series. He wasn't handsome like her father, and he didn't have her father's six-pack, that made Amelia call him a hunk when she saw his picture. Josh had curly black hair and the kind of face you'd like to see if you had a problem.

Powdered sugar on yours, miss? he asked. He set down a pitcher of maple syrup in front of her. Heated. She had told herself she was going to cut calories today, but now she poured a pool of syrup on her plate.

Mom up yet?

She's a little tired this morning, he said. I told her she should call in sick, but she said she'd just skip breakfast instead and take a later train.

They had sex all night. Wendy thought so before, but now she was sure.

She was supposed to fill in my field trip permission forms and the one about who to contact in an emergency, Wendy told him. My homeroom teacher said not to leave it to the last day. Also, I want to talk to her about my clarinet. They gave me a really crummy rental. I was thinking maybe we could buy one instead.

It wasn't the permission forms that were making the sharp sound in her voice, she knew, or the clarinet, either. She was thinking about the argument they'd had last night about her going to California. She wanted to visit her father. Her mother had said, That's crazy. School just started.

You never let me do anything, Wendy had told her. As usual, Josh had tried to make peace.

We'll talk about the clarinet tonight, he said. Meanwhile, I'll sign the forms. Let your mom have an extra ten minutes sleep.

For a second, Josh got a look on his face that reminded her of Louie when he stood at the bus with her that first morning she went off to junior high.

What do you say we give it a try this once, he said, reaching for the form. Father or no father, if you get injured in some knock-down-drag-out volley­ball game, I'm probably the one who'll come running down to school to get you.

Watching Josh as he took out the jar of raisins, arranging them on Louie's plate in the shape of a man, Wendy felt crummy for saying what she had. Do you have any idea how lucky we are to have someone like Josh in our life? her mom said to her times when Wendy treated him the way she knew she had just now. Do you even remember what it was like before he came along? Do you think Garrett would ever put himself out for you the way Josh does?

I don't know why I say the mean things I do, she told Amelia. My parents are just getting on my nerves so much lately. Sometimes these horrible re­marks ooze out of me.

Maybe you're possessed, Amelia said. We could perform an exorcism. Ame­lia had seen a video recently where that happened to a girl, and when they finally held the exorcism ceremony, all this horrible green vomit squirted out of her mouth and her head swiveled around like a cartoon character.

On TV, the weatherman was pointing to a map of New York and saying it looked like perfect weather clear through the weekend. Better grab yourself one last dose of summer, folks. No excuse not to get out and vote today.

Josh had been making her a sandwich. Now he was packing an apple in her lunch bag.

You got Macintosh, she said. I like Granny Smith, remember?

I didn't want raisins, Louie told Josh. I wanted chocolate chips.

We don't have chocolate for breakfast, Lou-man, Josh told him. As for you, Miss Picky, the Granny Smiths at the market weren't any good.

But Sissy gets hot chocolate, Louie said. That's chocolate. Just not in the shape of a chip.

Tell you what, son, Josh said. You eat the raisins, and tonight we'll make ourselves some chocolate-chip cookies. Maybe you can bring in a few extra on Thursday for you know what.

I want Mama to come too, when I go to preschool, said Louie.

Mama wouldn't miss it, Josh said. That's why she decided not to take the day off today. So she could be there with you Thursday.

Back when her mother first introduced her to Josh, she meant to hate him. She was only seven then. She'd seen a video at Amelia's house around that time, called Parent Trap, where a couple of twins whose parents were divorced decided to get them back together, and it worked. Even though Wendy didn't have a twin like the girls in the movie, that was her plan.

She was mean to him that first night at the restaurant. She didn't order anything except water, even though sushi was her favorite. I was just wondering, Josh said to her as she sat there, not even touching the soybeans that she loved, what is your opinion of miniature golf?

She had never been miniature golfing but she always wanted to. There was a course called Dreamland they sometimes passed on their way to Fire Island that her mom said they'd stop at someday, but they never had. Josh took them there, and after that, when Wendy's mother said it wasn't really her type of activity, it got to be something he and Wendy did, on Saturday afternoons when her mom and Kate went to yoga.

They were at Dreamland when he told her about wanting to get married to her mom. I could understand if you aren't too thrilled, he said. I know you've got a dad, and it's understandable that you'd like it a whole lot better if he was with your mother instead of me. But I promise I'll try hard to make her happy. And I'll teach you every single thing you ever wanted to know about jazz.

Which was nothing.

She was the flower girl. All that day, she kept thinking about the Parent Trap video and waiting for her real father to come crashing in and say something like Janet, it was an a terrible mistake. Come back to me. What are you doing hanging around with this chubby guy with hair on his shoulders and love handles, when you could be with me?

Even after it was all over, and Josh's mom was hugging her, and she had on so much perfume, Wendy could hardly breathe, and saying how she'd always wished she had a granddaughter-even then, Wendy kept expecting something to happen that would make him disappear. But the next thing she knew, Josh was moving his clothes into her mother's room and building a bunch of shelves for his collection of old jazz LPs. Sometimes at night, she could hear them having sex.

Josh was a stand-up bass player. He worked weekends mostly, usually Fridays and Saturday nights, and sometimes he'd get hired to play at a wedding, but he was usually home during the day, except when he gave lessons. He loved to cook, and instead of take-out Chinese and pizza, he made them things like eggplant parmigiana and roast chicken with garlic mashed potatoes.

One day, he found a box of Duncan Hines brownie mix in their cupboard. He took it in to the living room, where Wendy and her mother were watching a video of The Music Man.

Janet, he said in a voice that was so serious, Wendy actually worried he was mad. She'd never heard him get mad before. She was surprised at how Scary it was, hearing someone who's always nice to you sound angry all of a sudden. Not like her father, who she could remember sounding mad, even though she1d been so little when he left.

Now Josh was holding the box of Duncan Hines in front of her mother, like evidence. I h6pe and pray this is the last time an item like this ever makes its way into our kitchen. Just tell me it was temporary insanity.

I bought that a long time ago, her mother said. I didn't think I'd never 'mow anyone who could make us brownies from scratch. I swear I'll never in my whole life buy another box of Duncan Hines.

Then Wendy knew it was a joke, because the look on her mother's face was like some character in a soap opera whose husband just found out she was in love with someone else.

When she said that, he put his arms around her and made a sound like a bear in the forest, a low, happy growling noise, as if he'd just found a tree stump full of the sweetest honey deep in the underbrush. Something about the way the two of them looked at each other like that made it seem as if they were the only two people in the world.

It was Josh, not her mother, who seemed to know Wendy was feeling that way, because he looked up at her then.

Knowing your mother's talents in the kitchen, he said, I can tell the only hope I'll ever have of handing down my secret time-tested brownie recipe is if I teach it to you.

Wendy and Josh melted the chocolate over the double boiler. You melted the butter in with the chocolate. Butter, never margarine, he told her. He showed her how to sift flour and beat the eggs with the sugar till they made a golden-colored froth, and he let her be the one to pour the melted chocolate mixture into the eggs, very slowly, so at first it was part dark brown, part creamy yellow swirls, until gradually the chocolate was all nixed in. Then the flour.

Now for the most important part, he said.

Putting it in the oven?

Oh my God, he said. You have even more to learn than I thought.

He reached for a package of pecans and poured a bunch into a plastic sandwich bag. He took out his big wooden rolling pin.

Josh didn't come with much stuff when he moved in with them. A box of clothes, his string bass, a picture of himself with his sister and his parents when he was around nine, and a stuffed rabbit, also from when he was little. Not a whole lot else. But the rolling pin was his. Wendy's mom never owned one before.

Let's say there's this boy in your class who keeps getting on your nerves, making fart sounds when the teacher isn't looking, he said. Do you know anyone like that?

The thing was, she did.

Or some girl who tells you she isn't going to invite you to her birthday party, and even though she's a major jerk, you really wanted to go because everyone else in your clan was going to be there.

This also had happened.


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