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Joyce Maynard's "The Good Daughters," reviewed by Carolyn See

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By Carolyn See
Friday, October 1, 2010

THE GOOD DAUGHTERS

By Joyce Maynard

William Morrow. 278 pp. $24.99

I was just sitting down to write a stern review of Joyce Maynard's new novel, "The Good Daughters," when I myself received a vigorous piece of hate mail. I don't get that much of it -- and please don't feel you have to rectify that situation! Usually, it comes in defense of a particular writer, but this woman just disapproved of me across the board. It left me bewildered for the rest of the day. "We're all just doing the best we can," I thought, and as my old Texan dad would have said. "An angel would do no worse, and a donkey would do no better." Then I began to think that maybe the universe was issuing me a friendly warning: Don't pick on Joyce Maynard. An angel can do no worse . . . .

Still! There are quite a few things wrong with "The Good Daughters," having to do with character, plot, general interest and plausibility. It's the critic's job to say something about those things.

In 1949, in the course of a world-class hurricane, Edwin Plank, a New England farmer and volunteer fireman, sets out to clear a downed tree. He looks forward to getting home in time to make love to his wife, even though she's no erotic picnic. She has a "short, utilitarian body," and she's already thinking her own grumpy thoughts: "Her husband may bother her in bed tonight. She had been hoping the World Series would keep him occupied a while." But Edwin gets sidetracked.

Flash-forward to the Fourth of July 1950, when two daughters are born on the same day to different families in the local hospital. One of these babies, Ruth Plank, will grow up to ponder this event in her early years: "My mother never took to me as she did to my sisters. . . . I was different from my sisters. Different from my mother most of all." Ruth is tall, thin and blond, and wants to be an artist. Her sisters and mom are short-waisted and thick. The Dickerson family lives just down the road. The Dickerson mom, Val, is tall, thin, blond and an artist. Her daughter, Dana, born on that same eventful day, is short, stubby, thick-waisted. "I'm not sure I ever felt I had parents," Dana says. And one of her teachers, just to confirm this, writes on a report card, "Dana has her feet firmly grounded on earth."

The daughters are criminally slow on the uptake. Ruth's real mother is Val Dickerson; Dana's real mother is Connie Plank, a humorless woman who compulsively reads her Bible and seems always to be putting on pots of beans for everyone to eat, although the Plank family farm grows a vast array of tasty vegetables and, in particular, strawberries, which are reputed to be the best in the neighborhood.

Time passes. President Kennedy is assassinated; man walks on the moon. There's the Vietnam War. By this time we know that short, thick-waisted Dana Dickerson, who really should be one of the Plank sisters, is extremely interested in farming, just like Edwin Plank. She's also, by now, a lesbian. Tall, blond, thin Ruth Plank, who really should be a Dickerson, has fallen in love with the Dickerson son, Ray, who has "a wild, birdlike grace." The reader knows this is a bad idea because they're brother and sister, but that's what plots are made of.

The story is told in alternating chapters by Ruth and Dana, and another way you can tell they're half sisters is that they speak in exactly the same voice. It's an orderly, prim voice, and decidedly aggrieved. (Of course they would be aggrieved, since neither woman feels she's been loved by her "mother," and of course both women are right about that -- as far as they know.)

The plot is close to 100 percent implausible. Poor Ray Dickerson, for instance, has to be dumb enough that he doesn't recognize his own sister. Edwin, painted by both daughters as a paragon among men, commits an egregious crime against humanity with no particular motivation -- he just feels like doing it. (He also manages to have sex with his uninterested wife so close to the time of his escapade with Val Dickerson that the issue of both these sexual acts are born on the same day.) Most preposterous of all is a series of scenes from pages 147 to 150, where Ruth is "made" to do entirely unbelievable things. She explains it all away by this: "The world went dark. . . . I screamed and wept. . . . I know all kinds of things must have happened. . . . I could only believe I had lost my mind."

It's like those old movies that used to be made at Republic Studios, in which the hero is stuck outside the castle. He has to get in, but the castle is impregnable. Next scene: He's inside the castle. In novelistic terms, Ruth does something entirely unbelievable because the author wants her to. End of story.


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