Tag Archives: joyce maynard

UNDER THE INFLUENCE by Joyce Maynard

My first book of 2016 was Under The Influence by Joyce Maynard, and it was a good start to my reading year. I’ve read another book by Maynard before – Labor Day (reviewed here) – and am a big fan.

Under the Influence is about a woman named Helen in her late 30s. She had a rough childhood with emotionally distant parents, and ends up marrying a man who she thought she loved and who provides her with the sense of family she never had growing up. They have a son, Oliver, who is four years old when Helen’s husband announces that he is leaving her for another woman. To deal with her sadness and loneliness, Helen turns to drinking at night after Oliver was in bed and develops a dependence on alcohol. One night, when Oliver wakes up in pain from appendicitis, she drives him to the hospital and is pulled over for drunk driving. Ultimately, she loses custody of Oliver because of the DUI, and her life just craters.

I had a hard time reading the first third of the book because it was so sad. Helen’s loss of her son, with whom she had been incredibly close, was devastating. I am not a particularly emotional reader, but boy did this part of the book affect me.

When Helen is at her most lonely and vulnerable, she meets a charismatic couple named Ava and Swift, and this friendship is really the crux of the novel. Ava and Swift are wealthy, social and generous, and they take Helen under their wing and provide her with the sense of belonging that she so desperately needs. While she doesn’t have her son back, her life slowly starts improving.

As I read Under The Influence, I started to develop a sense of unease that intensified throughout the novel. What was Swift and Ava’s motivation as far as Helen was concerned? What would they eventually expect from her in exchange for their generosity? And what was their relationship really like? The novel evolved from its very sad start into a suspenseful thriller that had me turning the pages very quickly, eager (but also sort of dreading) its resolution.

Maynard is an excellent storyteller. She’s also quite skilled at creating deeply flawed but utterly compelling and sympathetic characters like Helen, who have made some bad, but credible, decisions. I read an uncorrected proof of Under The Influence and noticed some repetitive writing and a few factual inconsistencies that will likely be fixed in the final version, but overall I thought the book was very well-written.

I hope the rest of my 2016 reads are as good as this one was!

Note: Under The Influence comes out at the end of February. I’ll post a reminder!

Depressing-o-Meter: Any book that I have trouble reading because it’s so sad deserves a high rating here. 8 out of 10.

Six Furlough Fiction Reads

I live in DC, and I have a lot of friends who are furloughed thanks to the federal budget impasse. I am sure that some of you guys are getting restless at home with all the unexpected downtime. (Once your closets are cleaned out and you’ve gone to the gym, what are you supposed to do with your time?) While I hope for everyone’s sake that the furlough ends soon, in case it extends another week or two, here are some books to consider picking up while you’re at home. They aren’t terribly long, so you should be able to finish one or two before you go back to work, and they are engrossing enough to keep your mind off the annoying situation on Capitol Hill keeping you from work.

Six Furlough Fiction Reads


1. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. This one just came out, and I just started it, so I don’t have a review yet to link to. But Lahiri’s other books are wonderful (The Namesake is my favorite), and this one is also supposed to be great. Check out Swapna’s review at S.Krishna’s Books. She is an East Asian fiction expert, so she knows of which she blogs. If you haven’t read The Namesake yet, that’s another great furlough read. You could even make a whole day of it and rent the movie afterwards – here’s my take on Book vs. Movie: The Namesake.


2. Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. This isn’t Maynard’s latest novel, but I really liked it and think it’d make an excellent furlough read. It’s about a long weekend, told through the eyes of a 13 year-old boy whose mother has taken in a fugitive. Labor Day is sad and haunting but memorable. Bonus: it’s being made into a movie with Kate Winslet due out at the end of the year. Hopefully it will NOT be a furlough movie.


3. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. I loved this book (as have millions of others). If you missed it in 2010, it’s the story of an immigrant girl from Hong Kong who toils away in a New York City sweatshop while trying to learn English and ultimately get accepted to college.  Girl in Translation is heartbreaking and eye-opening, and would be a good book to get your mind off your own problems.


4. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. I read this one last fall, and it has really stayed with me. It’s about a dystopian world in which the earth’s rotation has slowed down. The Age of Miracles is one of the most creative books I’ve ever read. Walker’s depiction of the gradual changes brought on by the slowdown, and the ways in which people reacted to those changes, was both realistic and totally original. It’s a stressful read, but again, it will take your mind off the furlough.


5. Anything by Jennifer Haigh, but in particular The Condition and Baker Towers. I love everything this woman has ever written, but if you’re just starting out with Haigh, try those first. They are deeply involving and moving novels that suck you in with measured prose and perfectly paced storytelling.


6.  Finally, you can read a debut novel BY a furloughed government worker, Michael Landweber. We is his highly creative book about a fortysomething who finds that he can go back in time into the mind of his seven-year self, thus presenting the opportunity to prevent a terrible event that befell his sister. It’s a quick, exhilarating read by a promising new writer.

So while you’re passing the hours at home trying not to check your Blackberry (yes, Blackberry – this is the government), give these books a try. And then let me know what you thought.

 

LABOR DAY by Joyce Maynard


It’s only fitting that I just finished Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard, today, the week before Labor Day weekend. It was a really good book and I am glad that I brought it with me on vacation.

Labor Day is about a five day period in the life of Henry, a thirteen year-old boy living in New Hampshire with a depressed, agoraphobic mother named Adele. His father has a new family and takes him out once a week for dinner. But Henry is lonely and burdened by the responsibility of taking care of his mother, who depends on him for companionship. One day, when Henry has convinced her to take him shopping for school clothes, a man approaches them and says that he needs their help. It turns out that the man is Frank, an escaped convict who needs someone to take him in and hide him from the police. To his great surprise, Adele agrees.

Labor Day is told from the perspective of a thirteen year-old boy, so the narration is rather simple. But the themes he tackles – love, sex, parenthood, miscarriages, death of a baby, loneliness – are not simple at all. Henry’s observations of his mother’s relationship with Frank, combined with his own budding feelings about girls, are powerful and poignant. The book is sad, even haunting at times. But it’s a deeply moving and memorable read. I especially enjoyed the last chapter, where a thirty-one year-old Henry looks back on that summer and the paths his life took from there. The sentences grew more sophisticated and complex in that section of the book – like their narrator – a literary tweak that I appreciated as I read.

I loved this passage, in which Henry’s father describes Adele: “She was in love with love. She couldn’t do anything partway. She felt everything so deeply, it was like the world was too much for her. Any time she’d hear a story about some kid who had cancer, or an old man whose wife died, or his dog even, it was like it happened to her. It was like she was missing the outer layer of skin that allows people to get through the day without bleeding all the time. The world got to be too much for her. Me, I’d just as soon stay a little bit numb.”

This Amazon link has an essay by Joyce Maynard about the different obsessions in her life that explain how she created Labor Day. I always enjoy reading about how authors decide what to write about, and how much is taken from their own experience.

This was my first Joyce Maynard novel, and it definitely won’t be my last. Highly recommended.

[This book came from a used book sale. I just saw what I spent on it it – $3 – which means I grossly underpaid for the pleasure of reading and owning this book.]

Wednesday Book Links

A few book-related links for this Wednesday:

I am always fascinated by the topic of what happens when writers write about their family members, either outright, or through characters in novels. A few months ago, author Joyce Maynard wrote an essay that was published in The New York Times'' "Modern Love" column about a time many years ago when she snooped in her daughter's email and learned something very private about something her daughter was going through. Maynard had been racked with guilt ever since about invading her daughter's privacy. Yesterday, her daughter, Audrey Bethel, posted her side of the story at DoubleX in a feature called "Modern Love Revenge". (How cool that this blog has launched a column for people discussed in the Sunday Styles column to have their say?) I thought Bethel's post was really well-written. How mature to think this way: "I tried to keep reminding myself that it was her story, and her emotions to resolve, so that I could make peace with what she wrote, rather than allow myself to view it as a not-so-necessary exposé in which I am the main character." I imagine that it was difficult to be so gracious!

Thanks to Book Club Girl, I discovered this blog: Flashlight Worthy. (Oh, how I remember those nights of crouching in my bedroom reading via flashlight, because it was "past my bedtime". If only I could stay up past my bedtime now.) Flashlight Worthy is full of all kind of cool book lists, like The 10 Best Books of 2009 For Book Clubs and What New Yorkers Read on the Subway and The 7 Best Novels About WASPs. There are so many good lists to peruse.

Finally, thank you Literary License for pointing me to this L.A. Times essay by David Ulin called "The Lost Art of Reading." Ulin talks about how reading is like meditation, and that with all of our competing activities these days – television, email, the internet – it's hard to settle down to read.  Ulin writes, "What I'm struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it's mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age." I really relate to this. There are so many things that take me away from reading these days – work, book blogs (!), social networking, that I am reading less and less. It does take a concerted effort to shut out the clutter and focus on escaping into a book.

How do you stay focused on reading when there are so many other things demanding your attention?