Chance meeting with a stranger transforms three lives
Joyce Maynard’s novels are beloved for their compelling and carefully drawn characters, and this—her sixth—carries on that tradition, with three characters whose lives intersect by happenstance, each one changed irrevocably for the better.
Since 13-year-old Henry’s father left, his only family is his mother, Adele. He feels completely alienated from his father’s new family—his new wife Marjorie, her son Richard (from her first marriage) and their new baby, Chloe. Henry and Richard have nothing in common as Henry enters the throes of adolescent self-doubt.
It’s been a long, dull summer for Henry, the boredom broken only by the occasional outing with this “other family,” and the increasingly unbearable Saturday nights when his father takes everyone (except Adele, of course) to Friendly’s for dinner. Adele actually never goes anywhere since her goal is to remain invisible—for reasons the reader will soon discover.
But then Labor Day rolls along, and the lives of these two damaged souls are changed forever as they cruise the aisles of the local Pricemart for back-to-school clothes. Henry is approached by Frank, a soft-spoken stranger who is bleeding and asks for help. He and Adele, who has always been a nurturer, take Frank in, and hear of the horrific circumstances that led to his incarceration years before—a story that matches the intensity of Adele’s own private struggle. Over the next six days Henry learns the reasons for his mother’s fear of venturing into the world. And as he sees her with Frank, really happy for the first time he can remember, Henry begins to understand the difference between sex (which he has read about in magazines), and love, which he witnesses between them.
At first Henry feels as if he’s “off the hook”—released from the constant pressure of figuring out ways to make his mother happy. Then he becomes worried about the possibility that Frank will take his place in his mother’s affections. He gradually realizes that “Our finding each other . . . was the first true piece of good luck in any of our lives in a long time.”
Maynard deftly pulls the reader into the fragile lives of these three vulnerable characters and their preordained march toward the novel’s denouement. A marvelous read—perfect for one long sitting—this novel leaves the reader wishing it didn’t ever have to end.
Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.