(St. Martin's Press, 2003)
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:
"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