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THE USUAL RULES by Joyce Maynard

THE USUAL RULES

By Joyce Maynard

Pub Date: Feb. 22nd, 2003
ISBN: 0-312-24261-1
Publisher: St. Martin's

Maynard (Where Love Goes, 1995, etc.) rushes into the breach with the story of a 13-year-old girl whose mother is killed on September 11, 2001.

As it begins, former dancer Janet (good enough to have understudied in A Chorus Line) is an executive secretary at a company on the World Trade Center’s 87th floor, divorced from Wendy’s irresponsible father Garrett and happily remarried to wonderful, domestic, bass player Josh, father of Janet’s four-year-old son Louie. Maynard’s chapters on the apocalyptic day when Janet doesn’t come home—and on the surreal subsequent waiting period—are flatly descriptive. Josh and Louie are devastated; Wendy’s grief is compounded by guilty memories of typically teenaged sullenness and meanness. When Garrett turns up after four years of no contact, wanting to take Wendy with him to California, she blankly acquiesces. Everyone she meets there is a case study in loss: Garrett’s girlfriend Carolyn gave up her illegitimate baby two decades before; bookstore owner Alan has an institutionalized, autistic son and a wife who can’t deal with it; 17-year-old Violet has kept her baby but can’t manage him; cute skateboarder Todd (Wendy’s first kiss) is looking for the older brother separated from him when their parents divorced; Garrett himself has a disapproving mother who dies before he can resolve their relationship. There’s little surprising about these characters, or about the books Alan gives Wendy to help her cope (Anne Frank’s diary, A Member of the Wedding, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). But when the whole mismatched crew gets together for an oddball Thanksgiving, it’s touching, as is Wendy’s ultimate realization that “something had begun to grow back in her . . . she was alive again.” A conclusion brings disaster to enough minor characters that a generally upbeat tone doesn’t seem too saccharine.

Profound, no, but sincere and heartfelt: could be the affirmative novel about 9/11 that a lot of readers are waiting for.