For an author, a dash of notoriety can work one of two ways. It can boost the profile of an otherwise inconsequential work. But it can also dog a thoughtful writer, tainting her worthy contributions with a whiff of scandal. Such is the case with Joyce Maynard, whose funny, smart novels and essays have been consistently overshadowed by the literary world's fascination with her youthful affair with J.D. Salinger.
One hopes her most affecting work yet, Labor Day, the story of a curious stranger who enters the life of a single mother and her son for one long weekend, will finally change that. As white-knuckle-inducing as Maynard's previous To Die For, a fictional retelling of the true-life story of a publicity-seeking femme fatale, Labor Day is also an unexpected examination of how character determines not only destiny, but also family.
Before the sweltering weekend during which Adele and 13-year-old Henry first encounter Frank, the duo is teetering on the edge of quiet ruin. Henry's father has started a new family with a woman who refers to her children as "kidlets," leaving Adele to retreat into the romantic dreamworld. As Adele pulls away from her work, friends and marital prospects, she also not so subtly insists that Henry choose her over his father, stepmother, extracurriculars and friends.
Henry, with the protectiveness that an eldest child has for his mother, reacts with empathy rather than anger. Leaving Adele a "Husband for a Day" coupon, he assures his father that all is copacetic at home. "I understood who my real family was," he tells us wearily after another awkward satellite-family meal at Friendly's. "Her."
Adele's abdication of reality makes her an open channel for other people on the edge, like prison-escapee Frank, who manages to snag a ride as Adele and Henry head home from Pricemart after buying back-to-school clothes. Frank is bloodied, and Adele brings him back to the house. Crises are, apparently, her element: "Times like this, my mother took charge, and I liked it, how normal she seemed then," Henry tells us. Instead of calling the police like a normal mom would when Frank tells the family he just escaped from the penitentiary by jumping out the window after having his appendix removed, Adele simply informs him that there's no cream for the coffee.
We're all familiar with Patty Hearst-like stories about Stockholm syndrome, and if Labor Day were only yet another tale of a desperate, lonely woman identifying with her captor, it might verge on the insulting. True, the novel is frightening: Maynard skillfully teases us by making it unclear whether Frank's exacting, methodical nature is an indicator of peacefulness or barely restrained menace. But Maynard also is interested in how the idea of a father figure alone, prison escapee or not, is confusing to Henry.
After all, all Henry wanted was someone else to distract his mother, to allow her to re-enter the real world. But is he able to give up the idea of being husband for a day? Some readers will simply see Labor Day as an upbeat version of Cape Fear, a book that alternates between despair and delusion even more than Adele. But apart from being a successful thriller, this book is a fascinating portrait of what causes a family to founder, and how much it can cost to put it back on the right path.