Written by Joyce Maynard
Joyce Maynard. Just her name conjures up so many images for me that my curiosity impelled me to pick up her recently released paperback, “Labor Day.”
In the 1980s Maynard wrote a syndicated column, “Domestic Affairs,” that I, as a new mother, followed religiously. Her daily reports of life in rural New Hampshire with her artist husband and their three young children charmed me — walks in the snow, hand-knit mittens, pies in the oven and such. Maynard continued to publish details of her private life, even during the less-idyllic following years when she and her husband went through a bitter divorce.
In 1997, she told the readers of Self magazine about a botched breast enhancement operation that she later reversed. Yet most intriguing, that same year, Maynard revealed publicly that she had left Yale as an 18-year-old student to live with the 53-year old J.D. Salinger for nine months after the reclusive writer pursued her by way of a lengthy correspondence he initiated. She recounted details of that time in her memoir, “At Home in the World.”
“Labor Day” is Maynard’s fourth novel and is narrated by 13-year-old Henry, who lives alone with his emotionally fragile divorced mother, Adele. On the Thursday before Labor Day weekend, the two head off to the Pricemart for back to school clothes. While flipping through magazines, Henry is approached by a man wearing an employee shirt sporting the name Vinnie. His clothes are disheveled and a tear in his pant leg reveals an open wound. The man quietly checks that Henry is in fact with the good-looking woman who is browsing in another department, and he asks the young man to give him a hand. The stranger who introduces himself to Adele as Frank is looking for a place to rest and recuperate. “Sometimes you just need to lie low for a bit,” he tells them.
Henry recognizes that for most people, this might signal trouble, but for the achingly lonely mother and son, this signals a chance for something that may shake up their world. So they lead the man to Adele’s car and head for home where they stay for five days.
In spite of this disquieting set-up, readers will find some surprising twists and turns. A story that first feels like a thriller becomes a complex and appealing story of relationships among three vulnerable people. The plot elicits from its characters a full emotional range including lust, betrayal, friendship and jealousy.
The storyline is not believable to some readers and reviewers, who ask, “What woman would take a troubled stranger into the home she shares with her child?”
And to no one’s surprise, Joyce Maynard, a woman who has taken chances and made risky decisions throughout her life, replies to her critics, “I would.”
The “guest author” pictured with last month’s “Reader’s Choice” column was misidentified. The photo was of Betty Hafner’s dog, Augie.