Raise the name Joyce Maynard in a crowd of readers and you’ll likely hear both strongly positive and strongly negative feedback. The novella Labor Day appears to be Maynard’s shot at redemption as she produces a Joan Didion-like tale told in slow motion and factual tones. Because there’s not a lot to the basic story, the slow storytelling lacks the grace of Audrey Niffenegger and the “just the facts” style lacks the icy precision we generally get from Didion.
The story is told from the perspective of Henry, a 13-year-old male who lives with his post-divorce loner mother Adele. One day they make a trip to the local shopping mall together to buy clothes for the new school year. In the hardware department of Priceline, Henry is approached by a tall man who says he needs help. He’s an escaped state prison inmate named Frank, and he’s picked out Henry and Adele as the perfect people to hide him. We follow the three characters for the next six days and nights, and there’s not much more to the story.
Because Maynard writes in Henry’s voice, Labor Day often sounds either juvenile or like a young adult (YA) story, depending on your tastes. I would not be surprised to hear that some young people pick up this novella and enjoy it, but many adult readers may find it tiring as the telling never leaves first gear. And, of course, not much happens. It would be logical to think – and the typical reader will – that Frank will try to persuade Adele and Henry to leave the state or country with him; not a difficult prediction. Is such an escape likely to be successful? I’ll leave it to you to figure out the odds.
Maynard ends the story then provides an addendum wherein we move forward 18 years to see what happened to Henry, Adele and Frank. It’s a touch that would work well in a film, but seems a bit forced and pointless here. Most readers would prefer to use their imagination.
In the end, there are simply not a lot of life’s lessons to be learned in the tale of a mother and son who hide an escaped fugitive for less than a week. This reader hopes that Maynard’s next novel is bigger and bolder, and more universal in appeal.
Note: A review copy was provided by the publisher.