Review of Under the Influence, by Joyce Maynard


Having the author Joyce Maynard herself as the reader for this audible book increased the intimacy yet the voice always seemed authentically the character Helen herself. I’d love to read Under the Influence (the title is relevant in several senses) with a book club. It should engender lively discussion & vigorous disagreement concerning which characters are attractive & unattractive & why. I love stories about friendship between characters with very different backgrounds & social status. These tend to be ill-fated, tho’ when they’re not – as in some of JoJo Moyes’s novels – they can end wonderfully. Here we a have a struggling single mom – well, not even that, since she lost custody of her son Ollie to her nasty ex as a result of a DWI (pure bad luck) – making a precarious living taking pictures of school children. Totally unexpectedly she is adopted by a wealthy & glamorous Bay Area couple, the Havillands, who shower her with presents & hospitality while she serves as a kind of PA & court photographer for Ava, the wife confined to a wheelchair as a result of a spinal injury. Her husband, appropriately named Swift, is a lively boisterous extravert who loves big toys for big boys, including a cigarette boat he keeps on Lake Tahoe.

Readers who know their classics will trace Swift Havilland’s literary bloodline @ once, from Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby back to Petronius’ Trimalchio, with a dash of Falstaff mixed in. (Swift also reminds me a lot of a current American political figure much in the news.) If you are an old movie buff, like one of the characters in this story, toss in an older version of one of those “madcap” (whatever kind of hat that is) couples from a ‘30s flick. Underneath however, there seems to be something sleazy about them, & Elliott the old movie buff, who becomes Helen’s lover by way of, sets out to find out what’s behind the facade of their charitable foundation for neutering unwanted dogs.

Personally, tho’, I was a little disappointed both by the plot & the characters. For me this kind of plot requires that the needy friend ought to be the one betrayed to generate real pathos & I expected that it would be Helen who would get the el dumpo. The more I reflect on the story afterward, the more I wonder what the Havilland’s real motive could have been for adopting Helen & her son Ollie almost as family members. Too often it seemed that the plot was controlling the characters’ choices rather than their choices the plot. Also, I found Elliott a bit of a stick (of course I’m prejudiced that he’s a poor sailor). A real man on discovering Helen’s custody situation would have offered to take over her legal fees there & then. I expect Joyce Maynard realized that but it wouldn’t work with the plot, which required Helen remain dependent on the Havilland’s promise of legal assistance from Swift’s fix-it lawyer. There was also a problem with the critical recognition scene where they, & we, find out what the Havillands are really like. We have to get it slowly at 2nd hand through the words of an 8 y/o backed by unlikely photo evidence. Finally we fast-forward ten years to wrap everything up & find out the fate of the Havillands from the newspapers.

So artistically speaking I’ll not rate Under the Influence @ the top level for plot or characterization. Morally and spiritually the choices seemed too obvious & in the case of Elliott almost judgmental. But tho’ the ending was dragged out, I found the story a compelling & engaging read which would be great fun to discuss.

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