Read Between the Lines in Joyce Maynard’s New Novel

“Under the Influence” is the latest from the Oakland-based writer.


Published:

Joyce Maynard.

There are two ways to approach Under the Influence, a new novel by Joyce Maynard.

The first is to read blind, without knowledge of the Oakland-based writer’s background. Read this way, the 336-page story is well-crafted, seductive enough to deserve sustained attention, if borderline soap opera-like in some of the plot and characters. It’s an enjoyable exercise, but hardly a deep, muscular workout.

Helen, a 30-year-old divorced mother who has lost custody of her 7-year-old son after drinking too much one night, searches desperately for rescue from other people without realizing that she has the means—the grit and brains—to save herself. Instead, she turns to Ava and Swift Havilland, a wealthy, philanthropic couple who appear to be magnanimous but soon enough treat Helen and her son as if they are attractive baubles for amusement or extensions of the Havilland’s power and influence. Then there’s Elliot, the steady if pot-bellied knight on a white horse; a character who comes across so noble as to be unbelievable, as outlined by Maynard. Even the villains are suitably creepy and easy to recognize: the Havillands’ son and Swift himself; Helen’s ex-husband’s new wife; and others. Again, Maynard is enough of a master at crafting flawed characters and their twisted motivations that taken at surface level, it’s easy to imagine her new novel following the footprint of To Die For and Labor Day, two of her 16 books that were adapted for film.

But Maynard is a writer with a past—most famously a past associated with splashing onto the literary scene in 1973 with a New York Times cover story, “An Eighteen-Year-old Looks Back on Life” and a relationship she had with author J.D. Salinger when he was 53 and she was 18. Importantly, she has for years made her private life public: sharing her foibles, failures, and triumphs in blogs, memoirs, the Huffington Post, and other mainstream media articles, public interviews and appearances, and more. Exploitation, self-doubt alternating with intense self-justification, addiction, romanticism, a constant search for father figures, devoted mothering, pie-cooking, and other themes of Maynard’s real life emerge as major elements in her fiction. Read in this second manner, with the orchestra of history playing along, Under the Influence becomes a symphony, rather than a one-line solo. It’s possible to imagine that as Helen regains custody of her son and finds her footing, the author’s writing will become means by which she saves herself.

Under the Influence by Joyce Maynard (William Morrow, 2016, $25.99, 336 pp).

Editor's Note: This story appears in the July edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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