Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard

This book is heart-breaking, beautiful, completely engaging. I read it on a bus ride from DC to NYC and the people onboard must have thought I was nuts, as I was visibly crying numerous times. Maynard authentically captured the voice of a thirteen year old.  Wendy is full of angst and confusion.  She is a budding individual.

I love the way she had the character write about The Diary of Anne Frank and Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding. As a former Middle School English teacher I saw Wendy’s voice as incredibly authentic, as if she was penning a reading response, the way my students used to be required to do.                      

Maynard’s characters are so vivid, so human. That is what I love about the book: the way it captured the bite of the real. The humanity. The authenticity. Wendy is a thirteen year old on the cusp of adolescence, suddenly wanting nothing to do with her mother and love-dovey step father or her adorable baby brother. She has a wonderful family life but she starts feeling misunderstood. All of that is shattered post 9/11 when her mother doesn’t return home from the World Trade Center.                  

The structure of the story is unique. It starts with September 11 and moves both forward and backwards, exploring the story of Wendy’s mom and dad, Wendy’s mother and Josh (the bass-playing, jazz loving step dad who honestly views Wendy as his daughter), how Wendy’s mother gives up her dream of being a dancer to support her daughter (she becomes a secretary at a law firm).                                                                                                                            

As the story moves forward we are introduced to various vivid characters. In New York the faces of people who decorate missing posters including one heroic fire fighter, Wendy’s dramatic best friend Amelia, Wendy’s mother’s best friend Kate. In California we are introduced to a cactus-growing, tarot card reader, a runaway skateboarder searching for his beloved brother, Alan, the father of a severely autistic son who owns an amazing book store and introduces Wendy to a series of wonderful novels.

The most vivid characters are Wendy’s family: her mother who wore dance costumes as outfits and did a Ginger Rodgers-Frank Sinatra routine with 4 year old Louie. Louie is an amazing character as well – a four year old trying to deal with loss, hoping magic can bring back all he has lost.And then there is Josh – a man devastated by the loss of his wife. A character I can envision in my head with his green sweats, messy hair, vitriolic feelings towards margarine and love for Janet and music. All of the characters embrace life in such a full-hearted way. I hope this book helps me to snap out of funk and figure out what is going to make me happy. This combination of beautiful language and amazing stories is what makes me a die-hard reader.

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