September 29, 2006

The Usual Rules

Note: This review appeared in my monthly newsletter (March 2005). Apologies to those who have already read it.

The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard
Contemporary Fiction
Rating: A+ (5/5 Excellent!)
Top Ten List for 2005

I'm just barely too young to answer the question, "Where were you when JFK was assassinated?" yet I will never forget September 11, 2001 and where I was for as long as I live. Having lived through that terrible day, how could I possibly read a novel that deals with the 9/11 tragedy as seen through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old? Nothing prepared me for the grief and overwhelming sadness in the book, yet I appreciated and admired the work ("enjoy" or "loved" aren't the right words to express my reaction -- how can a novel in which the first 130 pages deals with the raw emotions of 9/11 be something I loved?). Yet, how was it possible that I could not put this book down in spite of its horrific subject matter? Actually, I did have to put it down a couple of times. The writing was so convincing that I found myself re-living that awful day and didn't want to go to sleep feeling so horribly sad. Yet this is so much more than a story about a family who loses a loved one in the tragedy of that day. It's a remarkable coming-of-age story in which Joyce Maynard captures the voice of a strong, young girl trying to put her life back together.

You could say I cut my parenting teeth on Maynard's column (Domestic Pleasures) back in the late 1980s. She's one of those writers I've followed, both in her personal life (used to subscribe to her printed newsletters and now occasionally check out her website) and her novels. While The Usual Rules is a work of fiction, I recognized bits and pieces of her own children in the characters of Wendy and Louie. Louie is a precocious 4-year-old and I could almost get angry at Maynard for using him to tug so hard at my heartstrings.

I found myself marking dozens of pages in The Usual Rules, the voices of each character ringing true. As sad and difficult (at times) as it was to read, this is one of the best books I've read in a long time. It moved me and made me think and made me appreciate my family and life. It will certainly wind up in my Top Ten for 2005. No doubt about it.

Some of my favorite passages:

Wendy was stunned. She didn't know that anything she read in a book could hurt so much. She reread the words, in case she'd got them wrong. It was as if someone she actually knew had died and, just as she would for someone she had known, she felt herself begin to cry.

How can it be, Wendy asked Alan, that you'll be reading this story that's so sad, it almost hurts to look at the words on the page? What happens to the characters practically tears your stomach out - and then the book is over. And the first thing you want to do is find another book like that.
Does God know about this? Louie asked. In the context of the page, this really made me choke up!

Sometimes it was a flash flood. Other times it came on like a slow-building rainstorm, the kind that gives you enough warning you might even have time to get inside before the clouds burst. Once it started, though, there was nothing to do but let the sorrow pound you like the most powerful current, the strongest waterfall. When the sorrow hit, small losses came crashing over you in one suffocating torrent.

Somewhere in the pile under the shards of melted computers and telephones and file cabinets and computer discs and air conditioners and intercom systems and water coolers and Xerox machines and red sandals and every other color sandals and every other kind of shoes, under the shredded remains of business suits and briefcases and raincoats and car keys, gym bags and diaper bags and bag lunches and half-finished books, business cards and charge cards and postcards and anniversary cards and maybe somewhere even a love letter, or one word from one, or maybe just a question mark, some where beneath a million other pieces of paper and metal and plastic and - her brain would settle on this image whether she wanted to or not - pieces of bone, too, flesh and bone, somewhere in there was a scrap of a scrap of a photograph of her own self, under the Christmas tree, smiling, with her baby brother in her arms. I really like the cadence of this passage.

In September, everything she loved - songs on the radio and clothes and flavors of ice cream and types of dogs, leaf piles and roller coasters and skating, and Japanese animation movies and sushi and shopping and the clarinet and splashing in the waves at Nantucket with her brother - had melted away, not gone maybe, but this was almost worse: still there, but robbed of any capacity to give pleasure, like a soup with so many ingredients that, in the end, it tastes of nothing, like what happens when you mix all the wonderful colors of paint and it turns out that together what they add up to is brown. Again, lovely cadence. - Author Profile and Interview


  1. Thanks for the heads-up on it being an emotional read.

  2. Sounds like a heart-rending read. I need to save this type book for summer, or else things get very gloomy for me.

  3. Joy, you're welcome. It's emotional, but oh, so good!

    Booklogged, it definitely tugs at your heartstrings so I can understand why you'd want to wait until after the holiday season to read it. I know the characters and their stories stayed with me long after I closed the book.


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