Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. 2009. French title: Long week-end. (Translated by Françoise Adelstain)

For June our Book Club was reading Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. Our narrator is Henry, he’s older now and he comes back to the Labor Day week-end that changed his life when he was 13.

Henry lives with his mother in Holton Mills, New Hampshire and this is how he describes his family:

IT WAS JUST THE TWO OF US, my mother and me, after my father left. He said I should count the new baby he had with his new wife, Marjorie, as part of my family too, plus Richard, Marjorie’s son, who was six months younger than me though he was good at all the sports I messed up in. But our family was my mother, Adele, and me, period. I would have counted the hamster, Joe, before including that baby, Chloe.

Maynard_FrenchHis mother is rather depressed, I don’t know if it’s the right medical tag but she works from home, hates going out of the house. She barely manages to take care of her son. Henry sees his father every week-end but he doesn’t feel welcome in his new family. Henry doesn’t like sports and his father would like him to play baseball, something Henry doesn’t like. He feels like Richard is a better suited son for his father. So he endures the dreadful weekly diners and grows up with a mother who’s different from other moms.

That Labor Day, they went to the mall to buy some new clothes because school starts in a few days. While they’re in a supermarket, Frank comes to them and asks him to invite him to their home for the week-end. Frank has just escaped from prison. Well, he was in jail, had appendicitis and jumped out of the window of the hospital. Adele takes him in.

Then the unforeseeable happens. Frank is a sweet man and he makes himself at home. He fixes the house, cooks, plays ball with Henry. He and Adele fall in love in front of Henry. And witnessing this upsets him. He’s already troubled by puberty. He thinks about sex all the time. Being around his mother and Frank in a closed space makes him uncomfortable.

Yet, in a sense, he’s happy about it.

Your mother and I thought we’d take a little walk on the beach, son, Frank says to me. And the thought occurs to me that here is one of the best parts about his showing up. I am not responsible for making her happy anymore. That job can be his now. This leaves me free for other things. My own life, for instance.

He’s never seen his mother that way and he really likes Frank. He’s happy for her but has to learn to share her, to leave room for a man. He’s been everything for her for too long.

At the same time, Henry’s forced to see that his mother is a woman, that she and Frank do what’s on his mind all the time. He’s obliged to acknowledge his mother’s sexuality while his in under construction.

And then, there’s the power to know that he can end their love story whenever he wants. He just needs to give a call to the police…

Maynard_EnglishI enjoyed reading Labor Day but was disappointed by its Hollywood ending. I would have liked it nastier. Here, what could have been a really twisted tale becomes rather tame. I had read half of it when Jacqui published her review of Agostino by Alberto Moravia. On paper, the stories have similarities. However, I’m sure they differ in their tone and that Moravia has added that little wicked turn I’m missing here. Well, I’ll see that in a few months when we read Agostino for our Book Club.

That said, Joyce Maynard writes well. I wasn’t an adolescent boy but I suspect that what she describes is accurate. Adele is a rather unusual woman, broken by a past that the book reveals, just as Frank. Henry’s voice is strong and rings true. He reveals his mother and Frank’s backgrounds and stories with a lot of calm and humanity. Touch by touch, their portraits come to life. Maynard creates a strong atmosphere around this novel and the reader feels part of Henry’s world. She pictures the cracks life has inflicted on her characters’ souls.

Labor Day was made into a film by Jason Reitman in 2013. Kate Winslet was Adele, Josh Brolin was Frank and Gattlin Griffith was Henry. Why not. I haven’t seen it but without Maynard’s prose, the story becomes rather ordinary. It has salt under her writer’s pen; I’m not sure it translates well on screen. Have you seen it?

PS : I prefer the French cover. Less corny. Is there a secret competition among American publishers to reward the one who comes with the corniest cover? Sometimes I wonder.

  1. June 27, 2015 at 5:30 pm

    I was just speculating about the similarity to the Moravia book when I was reading your review (I have to admit I haven’t read either of them, though). And you are spot on about the covers.

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    • June 27, 2015 at 5:39 pm

      I’m really looking forward to the Moravia, especially after reading Maynard.
      This cover is terrible. It’s the same with Tarzan’s Tonsillitis that I’ll be starting soon. The French cover is elegant (IMO) and the US one oozes mawkishness.

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      • June 27, 2015 at 6:27 pm

        Oozes mawkishness – ooooh, I love that expression – well put, Emma!

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        • June 27, 2015 at 6:42 pm

          In French : dégouliner de mièvrerie.

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  2. June 27, 2015 at 10:02 pm

    I tried watching the film and found it so silly I stopped it.

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    • June 27, 2015 at 10:45 pm

      It’s one of those books that can become a silly film if the scenario isn’t neatly done.

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  3. June 28, 2015 at 9:20 am

    Great review and commentary, Emma. Pity about the Hollywood ending as the set-up is loaded with potential. Why does Adele allow Frank to come home with her? Is she lonely? Does she know he’s an escaped prisoner at this stage? I haven’t seen the film adaptation as the reviews were fairly mixed (and Guy’s comment fits with what I’d heard about it).

    I think you’ll enjoy the Moravia very much. Agostino is very troubled – there’s a strong sense of turmoil and an undercurrent of danger in the story.

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    • June 28, 2015 at 9:51 am

      They know from the start that Frank has done something wrong. He’s wounded and he’s honest with them.

      I don’t know why Adele accepts. She doesn’t have the same reasoning as other people. I guess she sees someone as lost as herself. And Frank is not threatening, he just asks. Even Henry is not afraid of him and finds “normal” to hide him.

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  4. June 29, 2015 at 5:34 am

    I saw the trailer and it had stupid catch words and a corny tagline and I thought this was going to be a rosy story with a predictable ending, so no thank you. Reading your review about it, I doubt if her prose will be enough to lift the book up a tad.

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    • June 30, 2015 at 10:31 pm

      Wow, that trailer must be terrible.
      The book was OK until it didn’t turn as nasty as it should have. The building of the plot was well done, it turned romance when it should have turned Chabrol.
      Too bad.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. July 21, 2015 at 11:29 am

    You had me until the Hollywood ending. Too bad, as you say.

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    • July 21, 2015 at 10:04 pm

      Really too bad.
      We discussed it in our Book Club. We all agreed to say it was elegantly written. We all read it easily and with pleasure but this ending prevents it to be more than a pleasurable read. Too bad, really.

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  6. September 12, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    You are right about Joyce Maynard. She is talented and managed to turn ordinary life events into exceptional moments. I really liked that book, easy to read and full of hope. I dis not mind though thé romantic aspect.

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    • September 13, 2015 at 7:44 pm

      I really enjoyed her prose.
      As you’ve read, I was disappointed that it turned to romance. The ending is a bit farfetched, don’t you think?

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