Joyce Maynard is not an entirely new author to me. While I have not read any of her books before, I have watched the film adaptation of Labor Day. I am not sure if it remains faithful to the book, but I enjoyed the plot in Labor Day, and that made me interested in Joyce Maynard’s books.
In Joyce Maynard’s latest book Under the Influence, Helen is the narrator. Helen loses her eight-year-old son in a custody battle after a DUI conviction. Her life turns into a mess afterward, and thirty thousand dollars in debt with no proper job, Helen is at a very low point in her life when she meets Ava and Swift Havilland. Ava takes an immediate liking to Helen and invites her into their lives. The Havillands are wealthy philanthropists who work for the benefit of dogs and less fortunate people. Having never been a real part of a family before – Helen had a miserable childhood, and her in-laws with whom she had good relationships once are now estranged from her after the divorce – Helen is thrilled when she realizes Ava considers her family. It seems like Helen might be able to turn her life around with the Havillands’ help and maybe even get her son back.
Under the Influence is a fine piece of writing, brilliantly conveying how influenced Helen’s life was – first by alcohol and then by friends. I felt sympathetic towards Helen at first and thought the judge’s decision to take her son away from her was harsh. On the night of the DUI arrest, Helen only got drunk after she had put her son to bed. Helen was upset over her husband leaving them for another woman, and she could not have foreseen that her son would have to be rushed to the hospital for an appendectomy that night. On the way to the hospital, the police also only pulled her over for having a broken tail light. Although I’m fully aware of implications of drunk driving and know that parenting is a full-time job, I felt Helen’s punishment was a little too much, especially given the circumstances and that this was her first offense.
I was rooting for Helen from the beginning. I had no doubt that Helen is a good mother. I appreciated her for staying sober and continuously going to AA meetings after the incident. Helen was trying to fight tooth and nail to get her son back, and I wanted her to win for the sake of her son because with his anger issues her ex-husband did not seem like he was going to be the parent of the year either.
However, towards the end of the story, Helen frustrated me. I could not understand how Helen did not have an inkling that there might be more to the Havillands than the do-gooders they seem to be on the surface. Helen was warned by a servant at the Havillands. Helen’s fiance, although he could not point out to what, did not have a good feeling about them. A total stranger who knew of Helen’s friendship with the Havillands came to her and accused the Havillands of wrongdoing. Even after all that Helen let her son hang out with the Havillands and that made me wish Helen was less gullible!
I read Under the Influence in two sittings. First time I read around 50 pages. Next time I stayed up until 3 AM to finish the remaining 260 pages! So it’s a good book that will keep you in suspense and I highly recommend it!
[Note: I received a copy of Under the Influence via goodreads]