Tuesday, August 20, 2013

After Her by Joyce Maynard - Book Review

Joyce Maynard's own story contains interesting enough elements to make a novel of its own. In After Her (William Morrow, 2013, 320pages, $25.99) she turns this fact along with enough place names that belong in her real story, to weave a gripping story told from the point of view of a thirteen year old girl about a year in which coming of age is challenged by her character's growing awareness of the reality of life, it's challenges, fears, dangers, and value. Rachel and Patty Toricelli grow up in a lonely house with their depressed mother keeping to herself in her room and their detective father, a romantic who flits in and out of their lives, a visitor. Their life is made up of exploring their world, mostly on foot or bicycle, in yet to be fully developed Marin County, California, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, with unusual freedom and wide-ranging imagination. Since Rachel, approaching adolescence, imagines herself a budding writer, they make up stories as they explore the mountain wilderness dominated by Mt. Tamalpais behind their house and imagine the stories played out on their “drive in movie,” the television screens seen through the rear windows of their neighbors' homes. They invent the lives of the characters and the neighbors whom they observe. And then, twenty-one year old Charlene Grey is raped and murdered in the rugged mountain park. Their father Tony, is the detective in charge of the investigation. Eventually, twenty-one young women are found murdered in the large wilderness area as fear rises in the community, which demands action.

Mt. Tamalpai State Park - Marin County, California

   Rachel, the narrator, and her younger sister Patty observe the life in their community, comment upon it, and make up what they don't understand. Rachel, at thirteen and on the cusp of adolescence, is invited into the realm of popular girls in her junior high school, as her father's work as a detective becomes increasingly prominent. She uses her unique position to, mostly, invent information to continue to maintain her status with her newly welcoming crowd, as even Teddy Bascom, the most popular boy in the school and something of a cypher, takes an interest in her, despite the fact she sees herself as unready for him. Rachel's responses to his increasingly demanding gropings in a home seemingly inhabited solely by kids, is sad, touching, and funny. At age thirteen, Rachel has yet to have her first period and suffers “the fear I would never become a woman. The fear that I would.” Her ultimate rejection of his advances along with her father's falling reputation in the community due to his lack of success at finding the Sunset Strangler, as the serial killer has come to be known, spells the death of Rachel's brush with conventional popularity. But as an observer of herself and the scene around her she grows and develops. Meanwhile, Patty, three years younger, has become obsessed with basketball and shows a growing talent for the game.

After Her is a complex, layered, and nuanced novel which defies sub-genre classification in the realm of fine writing, probably an advantage, but for some forms of popular writing a distinct disadvantage. It contains elements of taught mystery writing, a touching coming of age story, a domestic tragedy. It could appeal to a mature adolescent girl, but is pretty strong stuff, but is essentially and adult book. The story of Anthony Toricelli's downward spiral is touching and sad, capturing much of the quality of a good “search for father” tale. There are even overtones of the supernatural here, as Rachel, in the extreme sensitivity of her age, experiences insights akin to clairvoyance. The continuing horror of the search for a serial killer coincides with the drama of Rachel and Patty's insistence on bringing their knowledge of the State Park behind the house leads increasingly to the fear that they will be involved directly with the killer. This interlocked series of incidents and relationships creates an effective dramatic tension overlaying the entire work, giving it great strength to draw a reader into the lives of the characters and the events of the novel. The complexly layered and ultimately tragic relationship between Rachel and Patty gives the novel even greater impact. Even the lengthy wrap-up from the point of view of the successful adult novelist Rachel becomes, which at first seemed awkward and forced, becomes an effective tool in the hands of this masterful story teller. 

Joyce Maynard

Perhaps some of the verisimilitude of After Her grows from the first person narrative never being too far removed from the persona of Joyce Maynard, the author. The locales, even including Keene, NH, of the story track many of those associated with Maynard's life story itself, leading the reader to suspect that much of the novel is actually autobiographical in some way. Maynard writes this about herself, “I've been a writer all my life. Over those years, I've worked as a newspaper reporter, columnist, radio commentator (I was Liberal-of-the-Day on CBS radio at the age of 19, on a show called Spectrum) . For eight years, I published a syndicated column about my life called "Domestic Affairs", but when my life got increasingly complicated (I got divorced) and my children grew to the age where it was no longer a good idea to write about them, I ended the column and turned to writing fiction. One of my novels, To Die For, was made into a terrific movie, directed by Gus van Sant , in which I can be seen in the role of Nicole Kidman's lawyer. My memoir, At Home in the World, published in 1998, engendered a fair amount of controversy at the time of its publication --still does, in some quarters.” After Her is Maynard's eighth novel since 1973. She has also published extensive memoirs and other non-fiction, including an account of her youthful affair with J.D. Salinger. As a celebrity author, she's more than worth a little attention on her own.

After Her(William Morrow, 2013, 320 pages, $25.99) by Joyce Maynard is a gripping page turner and a thought provoking meditation on the pains, along with some joys, of growing up solitary and much inside oneself. Her narrator is a complex and engaging young woman whose acute observations of the world surrounding her enrich and complicate her life while bringing her to near disaster. After Her is an excellent read. I received the book as an electronic galley from the publisher through Edelweiss: Beyond the Treeline. I read it on my Kindle.

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