My experience reading author Joyce Maynard’s bestselling work is little to zip, to say the least, one exception being the film-adapted ‘To Die For,’ which I’ll say I liked very much.
I recently picked up a copy of her 2009 work, ‘Labor Day,’ at a local library sale, remembering her name from the movie credits. I noticed the paperback was covered in glowing reviews by various reader groups and booksellers, many saying the story brought readers to tears and some gave it two read-throughs. It’s that good? I wondered. I had to plunk down the dollar to find out for real.
Well, two nights of fervent speed reading later, I have to say Maynard is a master of thinking up stories that, while disturbing on so many levels in their basic context, at the heart of each lies a simple message about relatable themes like love, sadness, loss, and in the case of ‘Labor Day,’ finding redemption even in the most unlikely circumstances. Maynard’s ability to inject ironic twists into a storyline of what might seem the typical plot for a suspense thriller—single mother and son in a small town circa 1980-something pick up an escaped convict in town and hide him away for a week in their house as cops comb sweep the area for him—is amazing in that it adds whole new dimensions to the characters and events as the book progresses.
Soon, ‘Labor Day’ becomes more than just a story about the main character, Henry, and his mother, Adele’s survival of an encounter with a man on the run. The man, Frank Chambers, isn’t violent, or demented, as the papers say. He’s up front to them about being wanted for murder, the circumstances of his escape. While both Henry and Adele know they’re situation could take a turn for the worst at any moment, they’re strangely drawn to Frank, the person and his story, and oddly enough, the things he does during his stay that end up being very freeing and positive for them. Up to this point, their existence has been one of isolation, and loneliness.
Henry, as a teenage kid on the brink of adulthood, has all sorts of things running through his mind toward his mother’s situation, good and bad. While young, he understands the dangers involved, yet grows close enough to trust Frank and seeing closeness spring up between this stranger and his mother, that he goes along with it to a point. Frank’s presence in their lives bears some semblance of normalcy, something Henry has missed since his parents’ divorce.
As the holiday weekend goes on, and Frank becomes more settled in their home, there’s a sense of foreboding in the air as the papers continue coverage of the search, and their knowledge of what must be done if Frank is to remain in their lives. This, Adele clearly wants very much, but Henry feels profoundly conflicted over.
The circumstances all compound and combust into one very interesting climax as characters are torn between the needs of the heart and fate at the hands of the law. This conflict makes ‘Labor Day’ a rather intense read, but the characters are so sympathetic, it’s tough not to feel sympathy for the things they’re forced to chose between, and the sacrifices that ultimately follow.
NOIR’s TWO CENTS: One to check out; read slowly and enjoy for its unconventional take on finding love and forgiveness.