ON A HOT SPRING DAY, four teen-aged girls feed dimes into a clothes dryer and watch the diapers spin inside. The girls are named Sandy and Jill and Tara and Wanda. Their babies are Melissa and Sunshine and Mark Junior. Jill's baby is not born yet, but if it's a boy she plans to name him Patrick after her favorite actor on Dallas. What these girls now know is this: holding a baby gives you something to do with your hands; and, sometimes, watching a baby's face is even better than watching television.
Baby Love, this first novel by 27-year-old Joyce Maynard, takes us to the laundromat, the gas station, the sub shops of a small New Hampshire town. This is Main Street life -- where grandmothers knit booties and young wives fix homemade desserts for their men. But it is a new kind of Main Street altogether. Those knitting grandmothers have bright, dyed hair. The special desserts are made from recipes printed on the Cool Whip container. And, above all, daily life in Ashford, New Hampshire, is fueled with the blue glow of TV sets. Sandy goes into labor while watching CHiPS. Jill's first bout of monring sickness hits during the Phil Donahue show. And baby Melissa's red-haired grandmother props her on the sofa to enjoy an episode of Mork and Mindy.
Joyce Maynard has been receiving attention as a Young Writer for nearly 10 years. She has published magazine articles, essays and, in 1973 at age 19, a book called Looking Back, subtitled "Growing Up Old in the Sixties." The issues in Baby Love -- babies, love, sex, youth, music and television -- have always been Maynard's favorite subjects, but it is here in this shift to the novel form that she finally deals with them best. Fiction has taken away both the cutesiness and preachiness that a young memoir-writer is liable to. Gone, as well, is the kind of misspent world-weariness that would prompt a 19-year-old to talk about "growing up old." Nothing about Maynard is weary here. It's a new world and her writing takes on a new energy. For the first time, she is free to fill her work with people of her own invention. And fill it she does.
At best count, there are 17 major characters in this book. Briefly, they fit together something like this: Sandy is married to Mark and they are the parents of 5-month-old, many-chinned Mark Junior. Mark Senior works in the mill and goes fishing with Virgil who has carelessly fathered Jill's future baby. Jill lives with her parents, Doris and Reg. Doris sells Avon products and fantasizes about James Garner. Reg gardens and fantasizes about Ann, the lonely young woman who lives down the road. Ann binges on popcorn and honey yogurt and then sticks a finger down her throat. She unwittingly becomes the next target for Wayne, a mental patient whose pleasure is keeping women in chains -- permanently.
In the midst of all this, Carla and Greg arrive from New York to spend the summer in Ashford. Carla is not Greg's wife, but she hopes to bear his baby soon. Greg is an artist without inspiration until he meets the delicate, earth-mother Tara and her baby, Sunshine, the ideal models for a portrait which suddenly comes into focus. Tara lives with Mrs. Farley, her neurotic mother, and forms an uneasy friendship with Mrs. Ramsay, the grandmother of Wanda's baby Melissa. Mrs. Ramsay has several schemes to take the baby away from Wanda for good. Wanda, fat and hapless, lets people use her and wishes she were married and living in an apartment with a sign on the door that says "Love Nest," just like Mark and Sandy.
Maynard gives us these characters in small, sharp flashes like something we'd see while flipping the knob on a TV set. We come to know those people through a kind of pop shorthand -- by the clothes they choose. Erik Estrada T-shirts, 1940s dresses; by the music they play: Dolly Parton singing "Coat of Many Colors," Linda Ronstadt belting out "Blue Bayou"; and, by the objects they keep: Depression glass, water beds, marijuana in a wooden box with birds painted on the lid. All of these artifacts, as well as the writing style which allows them to be noted so meticulously, bring to mind the work of Ann Beattie, the novelist and story-writer just a few years Maynard's senior. In fact, the yogurt-eating young woman Maynard calls Ann has so many superficial trappings of a Beattie character -- an old house, a lovable dog, a stuffed animal collection -- that her name may be something of a private joke.
But Joyce Maynard's writing does not have the pallor of imitation. She makes these characters all her own. She is especially good at describing the babies in this book. They are slack-muscled, fluffy-headed, fist-waving babies, babies who make small kissing sounds as they nurse. They are as real as any other characters and they come complete with their own special artifacts -- duck sweaters, clown mobiles, blueberry buckle desserts. This is what baby love is all about and Maynard makes it clear from the start that it's not like any other love.
Unfortunately, what's clear at the start is not necessarily always clear at the finish. Seventeen characters may, all of a sudden, equal 17 loose ends, especially in a first novel. Baby Love's jacket copy promises that all these lives will "intertwine at a moment of extreme vulnerability," but instead they seem to spin more frantically and not much closer together as the novel nears the end. Maynard, sensing trouble perhaps, does what she knows best; she creates yet another character. Val, who makes her debut in the last 50 pages, is a spoiled pseudo-punk Manhattan teen-ager. She is as finely sketched, as true, as all of Maynard's people, but her place in this book is never revealed. She becomes one more distraction, one more loose end.
What this all comes to is that, despite the strong writing, there is finally just too much dial-flipping, too many stories to watch. Maynard's show simply fuzzes away as if the picture tube had been overworked.