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.