Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Book Review: Joyce Maynard's Labor Day

This was my first Joyce Maynard novel, although I had read many of her articles over the years, and knew quite a bit about her life. So I was thrilled to actually hear her read a chapter out loud last summer when she came to our local bookstore, and to meet her as well afterwards! Given that this week marks the publication of the paperback version, I thought it was good timing to post my review.

The story takes place during a steamy (in more ways than one) Labor Day weekend in a small New Hampshire town. Adele and her teenage son Henry are out shopping, when a suspicious man, Frank, (who is bleeding) befriends them and finds a temporary safe haven with them during the long weekend.

As with many of the other reviewers here, I too read the book in about a day, and loved how there were so many layers of complexity revealed in a fairly straightforward narrative style that had a lot of poetry and resonance. Maynard captures in a very authentic way the thoughts and feelings that a teenager would face going through these circumstances, as well as the backstory described in the book, and I loved that we see Henry's character as a grown man at the end.

There's much that really works well in this story: a built-in narrative tension and on/off danger, as we find out that Frank is an escaped prisoner and the details of his life and circumstances unfold; the details of Adele's life and wonderful nuances, such as her former love of dancing, her past romances, and her need for life and love as ironically she has retreated deeper into herself over the years; and the character of Henry, Adele's teenage son, who narrates the story and is quite convincing in his voice and point of view.

The middle of the book is dominated by a piemaking theme --one of Frank's surprising charms is that he apparently makes amazing pies. The pie baking works well as a symbol of domestic harmony and later on in the book as a theme that holds the story together, but part of me was hoping for a more quirky element, as my mind wandered a bit toward other tales where culinary activities mirrored the emotional landscape, such as "Like Water for Chocolate," "Chocolat," "Waitress," (the Keri Russell pie movie) and some others.

I found myself really routing for Adele, as if the more scarred and disappointed she has been by the events of her life, the more she deserved to find happiness. I was a bit surprised at the ease with which Adele connected with Frank so early on in the plot, and I did question Adele's seeming acceptance of Frank so early on. While I love the sensuality suggested by their "steamy" off-camera encounters, I did want to see some of this observed directly, even if through Henry's eyes --not because I'm a voyeur, but because it seemed realistic that at some point he would have spied or observed their physical encounters.

Maynard also skillfully handles secondary characters, such as neighbors and other family (Henry's real father and Adele's ex-husband) and also successfully portrays small town insularity.

I know from reading Maynard's Facebook page that the book is being made into a film by Jason Reitman, and that she is taking suggestions for actors for the leads. For some reason, Natalie Portman strikes me as an excellent Adele, and a younger Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood would have been perfect for Frank, but for now I'd go with Jake Gyllenhal.

In any case, I'm excited about seeing the movie, and I hope many of the original elements of the book are brought into it, a testimony to how good it is overall.

Editorial note: the Amazon link above is an affiliate link.

Labor Day: A NovelLabor Day: A Novel by Joyce Maynard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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