Years after writing the 1972 New York Times Magazine essay that would make her famous as a voice of her generation (and ignite a brief love affair with J.D. Salinger), Joyce Maynard dissected that essay in her 1998 memoir At Home in the World.
In it, she accused her 18-year-old self of a "fundamental dishonesty" in that Times essay. She said the essay was an effort by a "quintessential Good Daughter" to portray herself as "normal, happy, well-adjusted." The darker truth, she wrote, was that she was an almost maniacally driven anorexic with an alcoholic father. She went on to call her first memoir, Looking Back, published when she was 19, "facile" and "glib," and to accuse herself of giving readers "the tidy version" of herself.
This is a recurring theme for Maynard—she sells readers a version of her life, and then she confesses later that the previous version wasn't the whole truth. For years she wrote a syndicated column about family life. In her 1998 memoir she revealed how in that column she had often imposed humor and "tidy endings" on an unraveling marriage.
Now, at the age of 56, after decades of writing, Maynard should be sensitive to this compulsion to impose a neat narrative on life. And indeed, the title of her newest novel, The Good Daughters, suggests that the plot will grapple with the gulf between who young women are and who they think they should be. This is a promising and universal theme—we are all memoirists at dinner parties and playgroups, and who among us hasn't subtly tailored a story to her audience? And she has some ingredients for real drama, including a gift for scene-setting, and an intriguing plot based on the real-life story of two Oregon women widely reported last year. But tackling such questions is difficult, nuanced work, and tidiness, apparently, can be a kind of addiction. The Good Daughters reads as if midway through writing the author decided, "Eh, screw it, I'll make it a beach read."
The novel concerns two girls who are born in a small New Hampshire hospital on the same day in 1950. Their lives intersect over and over until at last they discover some big secrets about who they are. At least one of these "secrets" is obvious from the first pages of the book, perhaps intentionally so; Maynard's writing is so agile in places and so ham-handed in others, it's hard to know what she intends.
The "birthday sisters" are perfectly opposite to a degree that could exist only in fiction, the one a dreamy artist and the other a hardened realist. Alas, the realist (Dana) is cursed with clichés instead of parents—shiftless proto-hippies surrounded by yogurt cultures and beet juice and failed dreams. At one point, Dana's father hatches a plan to make money selling flowers, buying seeds and instructing his children to "toss them in the ground wherever we wanted ... to let the seed find its own way into the soil." This, of course, allows Maynard the obvious metaphor: "I knew, even then, no seedlings would ever take root that way."
Dana is everything her parents aren't: careful with money while they're careless, attached to place while they are itinerant. Her mother, a willowy, blond painter, adores Barbie dolls and scarves while Dana—dark, short, and thick-waisted, fond of science and overalls—is drawn like a caricature of a budding butch lesbian. In fact, she is a budding butch lesbian. Dana prefers nonfiction (presumably because it's so real), and one afternoon on a farm she takes a nap in the soil (because she's so rooted!). Dana reveals to readers that she loves the no-nonsense secretary Miss Jane Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies because she's "the one sane character in the bunch. Something among her long thin frame and her plainness, even homeliness—particularly set off by the frilly excesses of Elly May—stirred my heart."
Maynard's awkwardness and lack of subtlety—the way she forces her characters, like a pushy therapist, to articulate exactly how they feel—wouldn't be so frustrating if she didn't also show herself capable of fine writing. Years ago, in an interview with the Times,she described herself not as a "literary" author but as a "journeyman writer," and there's a candor in that. It's just that on occasion she proves she can be more.
The Good Daughters sketches delicious scenes of life on a farm, riding a tractor, cultivating strawberries. Maynard's writing is most potent in love scenes—the platonic love between a girl and her father, the ecstatic frenzy in this scene between young lovers:
He brought me presents: a kitten from a little girl he'd met in front of the food co-op who had a box of them to give away. A bottle of green drawing ink and a brush made from a lock of his own hair, tied to a piece of bone. ... One day he came back from town with fresh oysters, also gathered on the beach, with the plan of feeding them to me, but he couldn't get them open, so finally, after an hour of trying, he drove back to the beach to set them free again.
If the central characters of The Good Daughters were real, you can imagine them looking back in 20 years and, like Maynard herself, demanding a do-over. (Excise that seedling metaphor, Dana would tell her creator over the phone. Give readers some credit. And nobody on the planet ever thought Jane Hathawaywas hot.) Maynard's places are more textured than her people, who are like wind-up toys sent in straight lines across a carpet, obeying transparent and predictable motives. If she dug deeper, she might get more plausible detail, more mixed emotions, more of the muck and beauty of real life.
But it's little wonder that glibness shows up in the fiction of a writer who has struggled with it when writing about the subject she knows best. Writing of any sort—memoir, fiction, poetry—rings true when an author has allowed herself to become intimate with her audience. But Maynard, despite her constant patter of self-reporting, resists intimacy. And who can blame her? Maybe any of us, had we been packaging our lives for public consumption since we were teens, would take up glibness as protection against true exposure.
If you go to Maynard's Web site, you will discover newsletters about her recent experiences adopting children from Ethiopia and a video she posted of herself making pie. "You may notice that I am not making all these [apple] slices uniform—because life isn't like that," she says. "The metaphor could go on and on between pie and life."
Yes, the metaphor could go on and on.