October 1, 2009
Labor Day by Joyce Maynard
2009 William Morrow
Finished on 9/11/09
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
With the end of summer closing in and a steamy Labor Day weekend looming in the town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire, thirteen-year-old Henry—lonely, friendless, not too good at sports—spends most of his time watching television, reading, and daydreaming about the soft skin and budding bodies of his female classmates. For company Henry has his long-divorced mother, Adele—a onetime dancer whose summer project was to teach him how to foxtrot; his hamster, Joe; and awkward Saturday-night outings to Friendly's with his estranged father and new stepfamily. As much as he tries, Henry knows that even with his jokes and his "Husband for a Day" coupon, he still can't make his emotionally fragile mother happy. Adele has a secret that makes it hard for her to leave their house, and seems to possess an irreparably broken heart.
But all that changes on the Thursday before Labor Day, when a mysterious bleeding man named Frank approaches Henry and asks for a hand. Over the next five days, Henry will learn some of life's most valuable lessons: how to throw a baseball, the secret to perfect pie crust, the breathless pain of jealousy, the power of betrayal, and the importance of putting others—especially those we love—above ourselves. And the knowledge that real love is worth waiting for.
In a manner evoking Ian McEwan's Atonement and Nick Hornby's About a Boy, acclaimed author Joyce Maynard weaves a beautiful, poignant tale of love, sex, adolescence, and devastating treachery as seen through the eyes of a young teenage boy—and the man he later becomes—looking back at an unexpected encounter that begins one single long, hot, life-altering weekend.
I sure don't hear much about Joyce Maynard in the blogging world. When I mention her name to customers at work, I get a blank look. I add that I used to love reading her weekly parenting column every Saturday morning (I think she shared the same page as Dave Barry in the San Diego Union back in the late '80s), and that blank look intensifies. When I mention To Die For (one of her earlier novels), it's only when I add the tidbit about the film adaptation (starring Nicole Kidman and Matt Damon) that I finally get a flicker of recognition. And when I mention her coming-of-age novel, The Usual Rules, I might only find a couple of people who have actually heard of it. What a shame that such a talented author has slipped under so many readers' radars.
Like The Usual Rules (an incredibly honest and touching story about a young girl's loss as a result of the tragic events of 9/11), Labor Day is also a coming-of-age story with themes of forgiveness, trust, unconditional love and friendship. It is not an action-packed story, but rather one of great character development, reminiscent of Plainsong (Kent Haruf) and An Unfinished Life (Mark Spragg). The spare realism draws the reader in to the lives of the characters, not letting go, holding on for days (weeks even) after finishing the last line.
I rarely gush about a book, but I really loved this story! It's been three weeks since I finished and I'm still thinking about the characters. And the peach pie. I may have to reread that segment and try my hand at that crust.
The Usual Rules made my Top Ten list in 2005 and I am fairly certain that Labor Day will make this year's list. Don't miss this compelling novel and author. Beautiful prose and unforgettable characters. You just can't go wrong.
Go here to read my review of The Usual Rules.