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The Usual Rules
Joyce Maynard
(St. Martin's Press, 2003)

From the New York Times "Portraits of Grief," to the one year anniversary documentaries on every network, to the coffee table books about lower Manhattan, there are any number of stories to tell about September 11; Joyce Maynard's "The Usual Rules" is one of them.

A novel about a thirteen year old girl who loses her mother in the World Trade Center may seem like too much too soon - we have all complained about being oversaturated with accounts of the events, or about opportunists who capitalize on the tragedy by marketing 9/11 related products. But forgive Joyce Maynard for tackling a topic that might strike a reader with a critical eye as a little precocious. If you can suspend cynicism and tolerate a few sappy moments, you will enjoy this novel despite your sarcastic self.

"The Usual Rules" has some of the same appeal as predecessors like "The Diary of Anne Frank," "The Member of the Wedding," and "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," all of which are mentioned several times within the novel. Wendy, a thoughtful girl living a largely fortunate life, faces the ever-fascinating and confounding process of adolescence. The narrator adopts Wendy's teenage tone of voice and turns of phrase, which in the first few pages might seem just a bit too cutesy, but in the long run proves to be a frank and effective method of conveying the complexities of Wendy's emotions and experiences. Maynard clearly gets a kick out of cataloguing the ways in which kids bend language to make it their own, lending the novel a bit of sharp adolescent humor. There are some great details in simple moments, like this phone exchange between Wendy and her best friend Amelia:

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"Amelia said their special good-bye code from their old made-up language back in fifth grade: Spice Girls forever.

Michael Jackson is a pervert. What you said back."

Wendy is a child of twenty-first century bohemians. Her mother Janet, a former dancer, had become an executive secretary when Wendy's artist/carpenter father Garrett wasn't doing much to bring home bacon. They divorced, Garrett moved to California, and later Janet remarries Josh, a jazz bassist and modern day father of the year, who loves to cook, never gets angry, and organizes family trips to the museum or to apple farms every weekend. They have a son named Louie who Wendy adores.

9/11 happens very early in the novel, before we have really become attached to the main characters. In its aftermath, Josh stops cooking or bathing, Louie is hyper but does not fully understand what's happening, and they live through all the details that will strike a New Yorker as dead on - looking at missing signs in the subway, smelling that smell in the air, overhearing conversations about the Yankees making it to the playoffs.

Prior to 9/11, Wendy's biggest worries had been about things like being fat and about her guilt at sometimes feeling that her mother was the most annoying person in the world. As the tragedy begins to sink in, Wendy is surprised to find that those kinds of everyday tribulations persist, learning quickly that life goes on. She even catches herself wondering if, given all that she is facing, she might get really skinny. Looking at the pictures on missing persons fliers, Wendy realizes: "it turned out that horrifying things could happen to ordinary-looking people. Unimaginable things could happen in the most regular places. One thing Wendy had learned from carrying on her own normal-looking behavior for a month now - pushing her tray along the line in the cafeteria, working on her geometry proofs, buttering her toast: You never knew who else was doing exactly the same thing - which people were really okay, and which ones only looked like it, even though they could just as easily go jump in front of an oncoming subway train as step inside it for a ride to the next station."

Shortly after September, Wendy's father shows up unexpectedly, not having seen his daughter in several years, and wants to take her to live with him in California. She goes. Under Garrett's more relaxed parenting approach, she starts skipping school altogether and befriending strangers, meeting a whole new cast of characters; a kindly independent bookstore owner who gives her tea and books to read, a teenaged mother from the wrong side of the tracks whose own mother kicked her out, and a homeless skater kid. Under the circumstances it is amazing that the trusting Wendy does not find herself in more trouble. It is also slightly unbelievable when all of these characters converge at a Christmas dinner prepared by Garrett's girlfriend, where they all start to bond and help each other out - Garrett's girlfriend offers to let the teenage mom help with her cactus gardening business, and so forth. Not that Maynard makes everything work out perfectly, but she ties up the various strands of plot just a little too neatly.

While some of the California passages of the novel are less vivid than earlier sections, we still want to keep reading to find out what happens next, as the story moves towards the end of the school year, when Wendy must decide whether to stay on the west coast or return to Brooklyn. Her relationship with her father and his girlfriend take some interesting turns, while Wendy keeps tabs on how Josh and Louie are doing back east (Louie starts to hit kids at school; Josh starts to sleep with his dead wife's best friend), and she works her way through well-rendered memories of life while her mother was around. Maynard has a talent for the vignette, and these bits and pieces come together like an album of well-taken snapshots - a convincing and satisfying picture of one family's life together.

-- Christine Leahy






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