Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Labor Day: my take on the book by Joyce Maynard


There will be spoilers. Seems absurd to worry about spoilers when Joyce Maynard's Labor Day has been out since summer of 2009, but then you're probably thinking it's absurd I'm bothering to write this at this late date at all. The thing is I LOVED the book; if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. The 216 pages fly by plus the film starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin comes out in theaters everywhere Jan 31st. You'll kick yourself if you don't read the book first.


In the novel - so curious to see how the film handles it - two wounded people, Frank, an escaped convict, literally wounded from having jumped out of the 2nd story window of the prison hospital after an appendectomy, and Adele, the depressed, divorced, possibly agoraphobic, certainly reclusive, woman wounded by a series of personal tragedies - fall in love over an extended and extraordinary Labor Day weekend. 

Maynard takes what initially feels like a half-baked situation and fills it in with delicious detail - such as the several pages devoted to Frank teaching Adele and her 13 year old son Henry to make perfect pie crust - until it's bursting with a truth that resonates with anyone who has known what it means to have a hungry heart. 



Henry serves as our eyes and ears to the events of that holiday weekend, recounting what happens between the three of them while slowly revealing in illuminating bits and pieces how he and his mother came to live hidden away within a cocoon-like world of Adele's creation. How his mother, and Henry along with her, arrived at the time, place and emotional vulnerability, to take a convicted criminal like Frank not just into that fortress-like home but into their hearts.

Right from the start, Henry - bad at sports, scorned at school - is pleased that Frank, limping and bleeding, picks him out to ask for help in the Pricemart where he and his mother are shopping - a once in a blue moon occurrence for the woman who doesn't care to leave the house - 
It felt good, him choosing me, out of everyone. This wasn't usually how things went."  
Poor Henry. Feeling so adrift, utterly insecure; he's crying out for a little male attention which Frank, kindly, patiently, lovingly provides. When Frank wants to buy him a baseball and Henry retorts that he sucks at baseball, Frank says "Maybe you used to." Over the course of their few days together, he gives Henry some lessons, so that the boy while not Derek Jeeter (or whoever, name your favorite player) overnight, doesn't totally suck anymore. He's been seen, listened to, helped. That's a pretty powerful draw. If Henry can't help liking Frank, Adele can't help loving him. Which means there are things that go on between Adele and Frank, a man who is both an escaped convicted criminal and the sweetest guy ever, that a 13 year old shouldn't have to be privy too. 
The way I imagined what went on between my mother and Frank on the other side of the wall, though I tried not to, they were like two people shipwrecked on an island so far away from anyplace no one would ever find them, with nothing to hold on to but each other's skin, each other's bodies.  Maybe not even an island, just a life raft in the middle of the ocean, and even that was falling apart."  

The foreboding of that line  'and even that was falling apart'  filled me with anxiety; it couldn't be possible for a love story between these two damaged people to end well. While I knew Adele wouldn't let her feelings for Frank come between her and her son, Henry doesn't quite know that and begins to see himself as the odd man out. That sense of not belonging again, fearful of being replaced in his mother's heart is where the unraveling begins. Maynard had me nibbling my nails and wanting to shake some sense into Henry and warn him not to spoil the love story. I wanted it to work out, wanted them to be a family. Adele's life with Henry's father had been filled with tragedy; Frank was actually a very good man; Henry just wanted to be part of a family, a 'normal' family. They all deserved to catch a break. Adele maybe most of all. But that's my bias, feeling an odd kinship for this woman who finds life so painful, she has to hide from it. Her ex-husband describes her this way -
Everybody talks about this crazy, wild passion, he said. That's how it goes, in the songs. Your mother was like that. She was in love with love. She couldn't do anything partway. She felt everything so deeply, it was like the world was too much for her. Any time she'd hear a story about some kid who had cancer, or an old man whose wife died, or his dog even, it was like it happened to her. It was like she was missing the outer layer of skin that allows people to get through the day without bleeding all the time."
[SPOILER ALERT]                   [SPOILER ALERT]   

       Seriously, I SPOIL the ending. 
             
The depth of feeling, the passion Frank awakens in Adele, are what made the last few chapters of the book troubling for me. Without going into too much detail, Frank is captured and goes back to prison for another 18 years or so, while Adele carries on in much the same way as she did before Frank came into her life. They end up together when he gets out, living happily ever after.  My problem is that if Frank's coming has brought Adele back to life, I think that his going might be, as the expression goes, the death of her. I can't see her simply carrying on as usual. If she was a bit barmy to begin with, a trauma of this kind might send her right over the edge. Or maybe that's the ending I wish Maynard had written rather than the pleasant, happy ending the novel provides?



It just felt a bit too pat, too neat and tidy. Despite that, the last line of the book absolutely slayed me.  Yeah, I got a little misty, so I acknowledge some part of me was a fan of the happy ending after all. Deep down, implausible as it may be, aren't we all?


Can't wait to see Kate Winslet as Adele and Josh Brolin who seems so, so perfectly cast as Frank. The young actor who plays Henry - Gattlin Griffith - is actually an old hand when it comes to acting having played Angelina Jolie's missing son in 2008's The Changeling. Gattlin is about as different from his character Henry as you can imagine. His IMDB bio tells us he's also an accomplished trick rider, competing in rodeos and unlike Henry, quite sporty, so much so that he always has his football on set.  Just what a film set needs ... "hey kid, no playing ball on set!  watch out for the cam... well, that was a camera!"

You know I'm not a fan of assigning stars; if pushed I'd give this one 3 1/2 peach pies.
I hope the movie is just as yummy; I'll let you know what I think after I see the movie. How about you, planning on seeing it?  Care to share your thoughts?  I'm all ears.


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