Monday, September 21, 2009

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

My roommate and I don't have exactly the same taste; I love science fiction, she dislikes that genre. She wants something long to read on the subway, I want to read something entertaining enough to make me forget I'm on the subway. I like fantasy, she likes reality. Sometimes I think the only thing we have in common--in regards to our reading preferences--is that we like quality.

So, when she handed me Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard, and told me she thought I'd like it, I was a little bit sceptical.

I'm publicly apologizing for doubting you, Nee. I loved Labor Day.

From Amazon:

With the end of summer closing in and a steamy Labor Day weekend looming in the town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire, thirteen-year-old Henry—lonely, friendless, not too good at sports—spends most of his time watching television, reading, and daydreaming about the soft skin and budding bodies of his female classmates. For company Henry has his long-divorced mother, Adele—a onetime dancer whose summer project was to teach him how to foxtrot; his hamster, Joe; and awkward Saturday-night outings to Friendly's with his estranged father and new stepfamily. As much as he tries, Henry knows that even with his jokes and his "Husband for a Day" coupon, he still can't make his emotionally fragile mother happy. Adele has a secret that makes it hard for her to leave their house, and seems to possess an irreparably broken heart.

But all that changes on the Thursday before Labor Day, when a mysterious bleeding man named Frank approaches Henry and asks for a hand. Over the next five days, Henry will learn some of life's most valuable lessons: how to throw a baseball, the secret to perfect piecrust, the breathless pain of jealousy, the power of betrayal, and the importance of putting others—especially those we love—above ourselves. And the knowledge that real love is worth waiting for.

When I started reading, I wasn't all that impressed. The story moves slowly, introducing us to Henry and his mother, but once I got into the story, I quickly became hooked. Adele, Henry's mother, has become a shut-in after too many disappointments; now she sells vitamins over the phone, teaching her son the fox trot, herself the cello, and explaining about sex and music and the truth about life while serving microwaved fish and chips.
"You never knew how my mother was going to react to things. There could be some guy going door-to-door with religious pamphlets, and she'd yell at him to go away, but other times I'd come home from school and there'd be this person sitting on our couch having coffee with her."
Then, there's Frank, who Henry first meets while looking over the magazines. Thirteen and curious, Henry really wants to open the Playboy, but settles for a book on puzzles instead. The man standing next to him strikes up a conversation.
"I fell out a window. He said it the way a person would if all that happened to him was he got a mosquito bite. Maybe this was why, at the time, this didn't seem like such an odd remark. Or maybe it was that everything seemed so odd back the, this comment in particular didn't stand out."
Everything moves very slowly in this story, with flashbacks to the time when Henry's father left them, to when Adele was able to interact with the outside world, intermixed with Henry's now. Frank and his mother connect on a level that leaves Henry both yearning and angry. For so long, Henry was his mother's world, but Frank comes into their lives one long Labor Day weekend and suddenly it's as though he's always been there and it's just the three of them in this perfect world.

And it would be perfect, if Frank hadn't been an escaped convict. The knowledge that the police are looking for him hangs over the three of them silently, softly coloring their decisions.

It's not until Henry meets Eleanor, though, that things really start to go pear-shaped. Feeling left out by his mother and Frank, Henry is looking for anyone to connect with. Sent to the library to do research, Henry spots a girl he's never seen before.
"I asked the girl if she went to school around here.

I didn't before, but I just moved here, she said. I'm supposed to try out living with my dad this year. The official reason is I have an eating disorder and they're hoping a new school environment will help, but really I think my mom just wanted to get rid of me so she can fool around with her boyfriend without me getting in the way."
You know, reading the story, that it can't end happily... except that in a way, it does. It didn't end at all the way I thought--and feared that it would--but it was a good, plausible, satisfying ending. Not the fairy tale ending, but a real one, with life and its truths echoing throughout Henry's life.

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