The small town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire, in 1987 is the setting for Joyce Maynard’s gentle and quietly moving coming-of-age novel. In it, she tells the affecting tale of three damaged people who come together to form an unlikely family.
Hours after an appendectomy, convict Frank Chambers leaps from the second floor of a prison hospital and makes his escape. In front of the magazine rack at the local Pricemart, the bleeding man encounters 13-year-old Henry Johnson, the story’s narrator. Improbably, Henry’s mother Adele agrees to take Frank home, a decision that launches the three of them into a complex relationship that will change their lives irrevocably.
Adele is one of those people so battered by life that her response to its cruel blows is to retreat into an almost monastic existence. Her ex-husband has started a new family with whom Henry shares Saturday night dinner at the local Friendly’s restaurant, an occasion that serves mostly to give him the chance to compare himself unfavorably with his stepbrother, who’s the same age. Adele, an accomplished dancer, fitfully sells vitamins over the phone (giving them away to customers who can’t afford them), listens to Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Leonard Cohen, and fitfully tries to learn Spanish and play the cello. She shares Cap’n Andy frozen fish dinners with Henry while discoursing on an array of firmly held opinions, from the proper way a man should hold his partner in ballroom dancing to her view that microwave ovens cause cancer and sterility.
Maynard’s empathy for this quirky woman is evident, but she’s content to win us to that view at a measured pace, as we gradually learn, through Henry’s eyes, the roots of Adele’s sorrow and the reasons why, as he sadly concludes, she “seemed to have taken herself out of the game,” how her “goal was to be invisible, or as close as she could get.”
The third member of this odd trio isn’t an ordinary escaped prisoner, he’s a convicted murderer. But midway through the novel, when Frank shares the story of his crime, it’s impossible not to feel an insistent tug of sympathy. Patiently, he works to win Henry’s trust, engaging him in a game of catch, offering bits of fatherly wisdom as he performs odd jobs around the house, and, in a scene that’s somewhere between mouthwatering and erotic, sharing the secret to baking a perfect peach pie. There’s an almost idyllic quality to this portrait, in which, Henry recalls, “for the moment, time was suspended, and not even atmosphere existed.” Maynard has an unerring eye for the intricate dance of family life, and these moments of simple domesticity are painted with accuracy and feeling.
But the relationship between Adele and Frank soon takes on a darker cast in Henry’s mind. The adults end up sharing Adele’s bed, and Henry, who’s experiencing the first flush of his own sexuality, hears their nightly couplings through the wall of his bedroom. They begin to speak of leaving New Hampshire and starting a new life in Prince Edward Island, and Henry fears he’s about to be left behind. He struggles with the notion that the only way to prevent her departure is to reveal Frank’s presence to the police and destroy “the first true piece of good luck in any of our lives in a long time,” and his resolution of the conflict brings the story to a taut climax.
What ultimately makes LABOR DAY such a delight is Maynard’s pitch perfect rendition of the voice of her narrator. Henry’s tangled feelings of love for his mother and anguish at his inability to assuage her pain mingled with his sexual awakening and the awkwardness of a boy poised on the brink of manhood are rendered with tenderness and keen insight. The novel’s resolution feels inevitable, but not predictable, and the coda describing Henry’s life after that Labor Day weekend enriches all that has preceded it. Henry, himself now a husband and father, grants emotional absolution to the adults who shaped his life and in doing so gives them a gift each has earned.
LABOR DAY is a wise, heartfelt novel that illuminates with subtlety and grace quiet truths about the sometimes fractured beauty of family life and the mysteries of the human heart.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) on December 30, 2010