UNDER THE INFLUENCE. by Joyce Maynard. William Morrow. 321 pages. $25.99.
How many mistakes do we make as parents? Everyday mistakes, like being late to pick up a child at school, or forgetting to go to the store so there’s nothing to eat for dinner. But what about the really big mistakes, the ones that are not forgivable? Best-selling author Joyce Maynard examines the repercussions of a mother’s mistake in her latest novel “Under the Influence.”
Maynard is the author of eight novels, including New York Times best-seller “Labor Day,” which was turned into a movie staring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. But she might be best known for her relationship with J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of “Catcher in the Rye,” with whom she had a brief affair at 18 years old.
After years of silence, she documented the story of their affair in her 1998 memoir “At Home in the World.” Her fiction and nonfiction books focus on domestic affairs (the title of a syndicated column she wrote in the 1980s) and the challenges of marriage, motherhood and work. Her style is accessible and honest, and she creates characters that remind us of ourselves.
In “Under the Influence,” our narrator Helen is a recently divorced woman in her 30s who is likeable, but frustrating. Her dysfunctional and lonely childhood resulted in a desire for family, and she married the first guy who asked. When she became a mother, she understood what real love felt like, and realized it didn’t exist in her marriage.
“By the time Dwight left, I had no illusions about our marriage anymore. The greater shock, probably, was discovering the effect of Dwight’s change of heart on my relationship with his family. My family too, as I had started to see them. Only it turned out they weren’t. And most of all, the shock at realizing how easily I could be fooled, how poor my instincts were for spotting a fraud.”
After her husband leaves, Helen’s nightly consumption of wine increases, and we don’t blame her because we feel sorry for her. She’s a single mom without a degree, working as a photographer. She justifies her drinking by telling herself that she doesn’t have a problem because she doesn’t drink during the day, only at night when her son Ollie is asleep.
One fateful night Ollie wakes up with appendicitis, and Helen drives him to the hospital. Only she’s drunk an entire bottle of wine and is pulled over for a broken taillight. She fails the Breathalyzer test and loses her license, her job, and custody of her son. Heartbroken, she quits drinking and goes to AA. All of this happens in the first 50 pages of the book.
Maynard recently wrote a series of articles for the Huffington Post about her struggle with alcohol. Interestingly, she didn’t realize that she had a problem until after she completed this book. She says “it was hearing my own words about addiction to alcohol, spoken in the voice of my fictional character, that revealed to me what my daily morning headache, and my trips to the recycling bin with all those empty bottles, had not.”
Maynard says Helen is a conglomeration of women who use wine as a way to deal with life’s stressors, and like Helen, she drank to ease her daily suffering. She has been on the wagon since February and her public documentation of her recovery is inspiring.
“Under the Influence” poignantly captures the vulnerability of a woman who has lost everything. Alone in her apartment Helen has lost her son, her husband, her self-esteem, her driver’s license, her job and her means of escape. She can only see her son every other Saturday for six hours at a time, contingent on her commitment to stay sober. Suddenly, the person she loves most in the world is gone from her life, and she has only herself to blame.
She’s at her lowest when she meets Ava and Swift Havilland, a wealthy, dynamic couple whose generosity seems limitless. They draw Helen into their inner circle and offer her friendship, a job and a promise to help her regain custody. Helen begins to spend all her time at the Havilland’s grand home, gratefully accepting the gifts and attention they shower on her. There is always something off about the arrangement, but Helen, self-proclaimed fool, doesn’t suspect a thing.
In the preface Maynard hints at the dark clouds to come, and the pace moves quickly toward the expected downfall. She drops hints like breadcrumbs along the way and Helen’s blindness to the truth leads to another lapse in judgment. There’s a certain pleasure for readers in feeling smarter than the narrator; in being able to shout out loud “I knew it!” when the situation unfolds just as we suspected. Maynard gives us that pleasure without making the conclusion predictable.
This novel is billed as a book about friendship, but I think Maynard has given us much more. “Under the Influence” is about being human and the price we pay for the mistakes we make. It’s about betrayal and forgiveness, and picking up the pieces to start all over again.
Reviewer Amy Mercer is a freelance writer in Charleston.