Book Review: Joyce Maynard's 'Labor Day'

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By Caroline Preston
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 12, 2009


By Joyce Maynard

William Morrow.

244 pp. $24.99

With Labor Day fast approaching, many of us are already looking forward to the last-blast-of-summer rituals, family barbecues and backyard baseball games. But for Henry, the likable 13-year-old narrator of Joyce Maynard's moving new novel, Labor Day weekend is shaping up like the rest of his lonely summer with nothing to do except watch television, play with his hamster and fantasize about his female classmates.

Henry lives in a small New Hampshire town with his beautiful, fragile mother, Adele, who has shrunk back from the world after a wounding divorce. Because Adele is too agoraphobic to venture out much, they subsist on canned soup and Cap'n Andy frozen fish dinners. But the Thursday before Labor Day weekend, Henry persuades his mother to go on a back-to-school shopping trip to the local Pricemart. There an unkempt man with a gash on his forehead approaches them and asks for a ride. "I'd be careful not to get blood on your seat," he says.

While this request would send most of us sprinting to store security, Henry and Adele are so unworldly and desperate for company that they agree. When the man, Frank Chambers, confesses that he's a convicted murderer who's gotten his wounds in a prison escape, a sense of dread begins to mount.

But Frank's claim that Adele and Henry have "never been in better hands" seems, incredibly, to be true. Over the next five days, Frank teaches Henry a few important life skills -- how to throw a baseball, how to change a flat tire, how to make a flaky pie crust. Frank and Adele, both love-starved, become infatuated, and she begins to snap out of her long depression. Henry feels jealous but is mostly relieved that Frank can take over the burden of his mother. "I am not responsible for making her happy anymore. That job can be his now. This leaves me free for other things. My own life, for instance."

It is a testament to Maynard's skill that she makes this ominous setup into a convincing and poignant coming-of-age tale. As she has revealed in her memoirs and five previous novels, Maynard has had her own share of unsuitable attachments (including an intense pen pal relationship with a convicted murderer). She understands the deep yearnings that drive people to impulsive decisions and sometimes reckless behavior.

As Henry looks back on that fateful Labor Day weekend, he decides that Frank's most useful lesson was quite simple: Take a leap of faith and believe "that you would land on your own two feet."

Preston's most recent novel is "Gatsby's Girl."

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