I'll be honest; it was the cover of Joyce Maynard's Labor Day that caught my attention. Who hasn't drawn a heart with someone's initials or merely doodled on a fogged up pane of glass? I have had this book on my Kindle for a while, so when I opened it up, I couldn't even remember what the blurb said it was about. I only remembered the striking cover.
As predicted by the cover, Maynard's novel confronts love in all its forms - husband and wife, mother and child, adult lovers, and novice relationships. Like a foggy imprint on glass, these relationships are opaque - not without their doubts - and cannot always be clearly discerned, but pay close attention, breathe on it again, and the imprint is still visible.
The novel is told from the perspective of thirteen year old Henry, son of divorced parents. He chose to stay with his eccentric mother rather than move in with his father's new ready-made family: stepmother, older brother, and baby sister. His mother, Adele, used to be a dancer, but a series of miscarriages after Henry was born culminating in his parents divorce have turned her into an introvert. Rarely does she even leave the house for groceries. Instead, she and Henry subsist on frozen fish dinners and canned soups. It is on a rare outing during Labor Day weekend to stock up on school supplies for Henry that he and his mother meet Frank, an escaped convict from a nearby prison. Henry and Adele, unused to a kind male presence in their lives, agree to shelter him from the police until he can leave town unnoticed. It is over this weekend that Adele and Frank fall in love. Henry, who until now has never had to compete for his mother's attention, is torn between loving and hating Frank himself. Frank teaches him to bake pie and play catch. He tells stories about growing up on his grandparents' farm and the accidental murder that locked him away going on eighteen years. Frank represents for Henry the father/friend he never had, and although he enjoys these few days of life as a "normal" family, mother, father, and child eating home-cooked meals, happy, he can't shake his uneasiness at the changes love has wrought in his mother.
Although the plot seems outlandish when it's spelled out like this, Maynard's writing style is so matter-of-fact, it wasn't until I was midway through the novel that I realized how odd this situation is. By then I was invested, and I had to keep reading. The book has a surprisingly conventional ending, but one that after the insanity of the beginning I was glad to encounter. The conclusion proves that the imprint of those we love lingers on even after those people are no longer physically present in our lives. Maynard deals frankly with the ways love, sex, and loss change us, our relationships with others, and the way we relate to the world. Despite the unbelievable plot line, this novel is worth reading simply for the complicated lessons on life that Henry tackles with his honest, preteen perspective.
Best matched with a belief that love exists in the most unlikely of places.