Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06-225766-0
Trade paperback, $15.99, 327 pages
Maynard takes the rest of the novel to share why Helen hasn't seen Ava in ten years and tells us the story of how they came to be friends. Helen was thirty-eight, divorced from her husband and trying to raise her three-year-old son on her own. She had no family to speak of, and she adored her husband's family who took her in and loved her, and then threw her out when her husband left her for another woman.
Helen turned to alcohol and when she was frantically driving her son to the hospital with a burst appendix after she had been drinking, the police stopped her and she watched helplessly as her son was taken away in an ambulance while she was taken away in handcuffs.
She lost her license and then she lost her son to her ex-husband. She had visitation twice a month for six hours and felt that her life was over. Then she met Ava and Swift, a wealthy couple who made her feel like she was worthy again.
Ava was confined to a wheelchair and her husband Swift was a larger-than-life bear of a man, a self-made millionaire who lived life to the fullest. They took Helen in under their wing, inviting her out to dinners, bringing her into their home, and eventually hiring her as a photographer.
Helen blossomed with Ava and Swift, and soon her young son Ollie, now eight, was brought into this makeshift family. Ollie was mesmerized by Swift, who acted like a child himself- all id, no superego.
Helen also began dating Elliot, an accountant she met through online dating. Elliot was the anti-Swift. He was not flashy, boring even, but Helen and Elliot liked the same things- staying in and watching old movies, trying new restaurants.
Ava and Swift did not approve of Elliot; they told Helen he was a dud and not good enough for her. Ollie didn't like Elliot either; he wasn't as exciting or cool as Swift.
The title refers not only to Helen's DUI conviction but to the way in which Helen fell under the influence of this golden couple, two people who picked her up when she was at her low point. Why couldn't Elliot understand that?
Maynard reveals these characters so slowly and brilliantly, they feel very real. Helen's anguish, loneliness and humiliation at losing her son, the only light in her life, is so visceral, you can feel it vibrate on the page.
Her imagery is vivid too, such as her description of Helen's childhood with a mother who didn't love or want her:
"I remember a great many bologna sandwiches and granola bars. A Top 40 station playing seventies hits, and the television always on. Old lottery tickets piled on the counter, never the winning number. The smell of marijuana and spilled wine. Stacks of library books under the covers of my bed: the thing that saved me."
The story has a sense of foreboding throughout. We know that something happened to destroy Ava and Helen's friendship, we are waiting for it to be revealed.
At the end of the book, the Author's Notes share that Elliot (my favorite character) is based on Maynard's husband and it made me wish that everyone had an Elliot in their life as Maynard and Helen did.
I read Under the Influence in a few hours, I truly did not want to put it down. It is a book that I will recommend and ponder and know that my thoughts will return to many times in the future. I will not forget Helen and how she loved her son with a ferociousness most mothers have in them. I give it my highest recommendation.
Joyce Maynard's website is here.
Tuesday, November 22nd: BookNAround
Wednesday, November 23rd: Books and Bindings
Monday, November 28th: I’d Rather Be At The Beach
Tuesday, November 29th: Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, December 1st: bookchickdi
Monday, December 5th: Comfy Reading
Tuesday, December 6th: Dreams, Etc.
Wednesday, December 7th: Vox Libris
Thursday, December 8th: A Splendidly Messy Life
Friday, December 9th: 5 Minutes For Books
Monday, December 12th: Ace and Hoser Blook