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."