Friday, August 31, 2012

LABOR DAY by Joyce Maynard

We've survived the Republican National Convention. Next week we will endure the Democratic National Convention. In between, we get Labor Day weekend--our last chance, according to our foremothers, to wear white linen and read lightweight novels.

I recommend Joyce Maynard's 2009 book, Labor Day, though no one in it wears linen of any color and its weight is more middle than light. The story is engrossing, the characters are fascinating, and it includes a fine recipe for pie crust.

Henry, the narrator, is 13 years old and about to start seventh grade. The book's first paragraph lets us know that his family situation is complicated:
It was just the two of us, my mother and me, after my father left. He said I should count the new baby he had with his new wife, Marjorie, as part of my family too, plus Richard, Marjorie's son, who was six months younger than me though he was good at all the sports I messed up in. But our family was my mother, Adele, and me, period. I would have counted the hamster, Joe, before including that baby, Chloe.
A  seemingly random encounter with a weirdly inappropriate stranger (he's dripping blood, for heaven's sake!) turns everyone's lives upside down--but it's not what you're thinking. In a series of mildly suspenseful chapters, we find out who the interloper is and what he wants. We also learn a lot more (maybe even more than we wanted to know) about Henry and his mother.

Labor Day would be a coming-of-age novel if it didn't end when Henry was still 13, with only a couple of closing chapters to bring us up to the present. It could be a middle reader if Maynard hadn't included quite so much sex (though perhaps that's no problem these days, alas). Its unobtrusive but elegant prose and gradually unfolding characterizations would make it a literary novel if Maynard hadn't told the story in a fairly straightforward fashion, with more action than interior monologue.

It could not, however, be chick lit.

The one thing that bothered me about Labor Day did not occur to me while I was reading it. Only afterward did I think, wait--were there any strong females in the book? Adele: eccentric beyond belief, and probably mentally ill. Marjorie: conventional, a bit narcissistic. Evelyn: overwhelmed. Mandy: manipulative, lying, and cruel. Eleanor: worse.

And then I wondered, why were the males so likable? One is weak, to be sure, but not evil. Another is practically divine. The stepbrother is a nice enough kid; and young Henry, though he makes a serious error in judgment, is a delightful (and amazingly articulate) little nerd.

The fact that I'm still thinking about Labor Day two days after finishing it is why I've found the category that best describes it. It's an excellent book-club book: a well-written, enjoyable, not-too-demanding page-turner that begs to be discussed with friends. I should have expected as much, since I learned about it at my public library. It's the contemporary book group's pick for September.


Anonymous said...

Great review, and I felt many of the same reactions to the book. You may be interested to know the book has been adapted into a screenplay by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) who filmed it this year in Massachusetts. Probably to be released next fall. Love your reviews!

LaVonne Neff said...

Glad to hear that! I thought as I was reading the book that it could make a fine movie. Kate Winslet as Adele - interesting choice.