Friday, October 25, 2013

What we're reading: Joyce Maynard

My first experience of author Joyce Maynard was reading her (first) autobiography, Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties. It was an interesting book to read, because the title sounds like someone in their final years wrote a memoir about their long life, while in actuality Maynard was born in 1953 and published the book in 1973 when she was 19. One would think that she would have little to say in terms of looking back, at age 19, but the content has surprising depth. It was interesting for me to read because she was only two years older than I was, and I marveled, at age 21 when I read it, at the juxtaposition of the commonality of some of our experiences with the complete unfamiliarity and sophistication of her viewpoint.

After reading that book at an impressionable age, I followed her career with interest. She left it a long time between books, first working as a reporter for the New York Times, and then busying herself with family life and writing a weekly syndicated column, "Domestic Affairs." She is probably best known (after her original autobiography and her later one, At Home in the World, in which she revealed her relationship with writer J. D. Salinger when she was a teenager and he was in his 50s) for the book To Die For, which was later adapted for film, starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Gus Van Sant. Her book Labor Day is also about to be released in theaters, starring Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet, and directed by Jason Reitman.

Her newest book, After Her, reflects the interest she had shown in To Die For and several of her other books, in the subject of true crime. Indeed, she wrote one true crime book, but other, fictional works were likewise based on actual events, either loosely or closely. This one follows the 1970s case of the Marin County Trailside Killer, who appears in Maynard's novel as the Sunset Strangler. It sounds from this description like it would be a mystery/thriller/novel of suspense, and in some aspects it is, but I would identify this book primarily as a coming of age story.

Because the protagonists are young teens, and because Booklist magazine recommended it on its "Adult Books for Young Adults" list, I bought it for the teen section of the library, but after reading it I would consider it an adult work of literary fiction, not a teen book (although more mature teens and young adults would definitely enjoy it). It reads like a memoir, since it is written from the viewpoint of a 40-something-year-old woman about a particular time in her life.

Maynard didn't just base it on the actual serial killer case, but also on two sisters whose father was a homicide detective trying to solve it, so it really has the feel of a true story. The heart of it is the close, sweet, and intense relationship between sisters Rachel and Patty, whose parents have each deserted the girls in their own way, the father by being a charming player who broke his wife's heart and left, and the mother by retreating into books and solitude, leaving the girls to fend for themselves. Luckily, they have each other, and as dysfunctional as their family is, they manage to rise above it and build a somewhat magical existence, making up stories and acting them out up on the mountain behind their house. When the Sunset Strangler invades this space and their beloved but elusive father becomes the lead homicide detective on the case, Rachel's focus shifts to thinking of ways she can help him catch the killer, with disastrous results.

This is not the easiest read. You have to be willing to be immersed in the mind of a self-obsessed 13-year-old and see the world through her eyes. But Maynard employs truly beautiful prose to tell her story, and it's a gripping plot as well. I had a little trouble with the ending, which seemed rushed and a bit too convenient compared to the leisurely pace of the rest of the book, but with this small caveat I would still be sorry to have missed After Her.

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