The Short Version: Over one long Labor Day weekend in 1987, everything changes for young Henry. He lives with his mother, Adele, who has retreated almost entirely from the world after her divorce – but when a handsome, wounded stranger asks for their help (and turns out to be a fugitive), she begins to open up again while Henry struggles to understand the grown-up world he’s only just beginning to step into.
The Review: So a little bit of explanation before we get into things. The fine folks at William Morrow (led by Alaina Waagner) offered copies of this book to my BookClub on the condition that we then also go see the movie together and write about the whole experience. The group’s reaction to the book will be forthcoming shortly and the movie reaction sometime in the next couple weeks – but I just wanted to give some context here, because this is not a book I would’ve picked up off the shelf. In fact, while it has elements of novels like Atonement or the works of various nostalgia-peddling American writers, it veers a bit close to not chick-lit but housewife-lit (if such a thing exists). This is the sort of book meant for your mom’s book club.
Which makes it all the more remarkable, to me anyway, that I enjoyed it as much as I did. For those who’ve seen the movie trailers or even for those who read the jacket copy, you know pretty much exactly what you’re getting when you pick up this book. The story will not diverge from how you expect it to end, although the particulars might fluctuate here or there (example, out of context: I didn’t expect the introduction of Eleanor at all. But we’ll get to that.) – and your enjoyment of the novel will largely depend upon how you feel about getting into this kind of story.
But it helps that Maynard can turn a phrase when she needs to. The writing is not knock-your-socks-off acrobatic but there are lines of simple beauty – including one that might just be my favorite line I’ve read so far this year:
You could tell, the way he reached for his bowl, that this man had made more than a few pies in his life.
That moment, that line there, was where I sat up and said “you know what, I think I’m enjoying myself quite a bit.” It’s simple, a little odd (you can tell from reaching for a bowl that someone has made pies before? …kay), but I think it’s the alliteration of man/made/more and the vague specificity of ‘more than a few’ that just… it conjures an image, a moment, a whole world inside a sentence. I also learned, from the lines surrounding that one, some truly interesting tidbits about pies that I will absolutely be taking into account when next I bake, but that’s neither here nor there.
Speaking of a whole world inside a small moment, that’s pretty much what this book is – it’s a whole world inside a weekend. Henry, whose mother is a little out there and whose father is just not terribly good at being his dad, gets a glimpse into what his life could have been like. At the same time, he’s 13 years old. As G.O.B. Bluth says, “I wasn’t crazy about 13. The acne, the self-consciousness… the erections.” Henry doesn’t have acne, apparently, but he sure as hell has the other two – and the sudden appearance of a virile, manly father figure doesn’t quite help him during this already-awkward time. And while I’m all for coming-of-age narratives (they make the world go round, folks, because we allllll went through it and isn’t it cathartic to look back?), there were moments here that felt… awkward. Two types of awkward, too – there’s the awkward of the poor kid, uh, overhearing some things but then also the awkward of his interactions with Eleanor, a really specific secondary character who kind of comes out of nowhere.
And oddly enough, that’s where the high-wire act failed for me. This sort of plot relies on certain things being set up and then knocked down in sequence – that’s how it goes, no one comes to this kind of book for surprises – but the best ones allow you to forget that you’re reading something that is effectively paint-by-numbers. And I did forget that until Eleanor showed up, with her anorexia and her terribly worldly-wise ways. She exists of course to shake things up and pierce the bubble of this bucolic weekend… but it happens with the subtlety of a jackhammer on a Sunday morning. From the moment Henry met up with her, I was just waiting for everything to play out and I was no longer interested in the characters or the oddly comforting world that had developed between Henry, Adele, and Frank. When it does then play out and the long weekend ends, we’re subjected to the predictable denouement that follows our young hero into the real world and the realizations, the understanding, the semi-happy ending… it all just feels like “okay, right, yep, aaaand credits roll so I can head home.” The jump in time, the fast-forward-to-understanding (possibly the main reason anyone is linking this book to Atonement) is all so unnecessary… and yet it’s entirely necessary, because you’d have a riot if you just ended the book on that Wednesday afternoon as the last traces of the weekend are washed away by the rain. Would that make for an ending with a bigger punch? Sure. But, again, you’re not coming to this book for that – you’re coming to it for exactly what it delivers.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Considering the sheer pleasure I got while reading this book – not pleasure in a HAPPY! way but pleasure in a “this read well and quickly and ticked the boxes it was meant to tick” way – I could’ve nudged this up to a 4. But let’s be honest: I will, more likely than not, forget most of this within a few weeks (possibly longer, as movie-going is in my future), hopefully excepting the pie tips. This is housewife-book-club material and a damn fine example of it. Maynard’s writing flows like a kitchen faucet, smooth and clear and sometimes oddly beautiful – all the while evoking those simpler summer days of childhood while attempting to capture the awkwardness we’d rather forget. You know, based on one look at the synopsis, whether or not you’ll like this book. If you’re the kind of person who will, then by all means enjoy – you could do a lot worse.