Wendy, the 13-year-old heroine of Joyce Maynard's The Usual Rules
, lives in a happy, haphazard Brooklyn household with her dancer/secretary mom, her jazz musician stepfather, and her eccentric little brother. Life for Wendy is fraught with the usual teen angst until September 11, when her mom heads off to work at the World Trade Center and never comes home. Wendy struggles through the days with stepfather Josh and brother Louis until on Halloween night her estranged biological father shows up and offers to take her home with him to California. On the West Coast, Wendy devises her own healing process of skipping school, hanging around with an unwed teen mom, and spending hours loafing at a bookstore. Maynard is very good on Wendy's grief. She tries on one of her mother's dresses and realizes with a shock it still holds her mom's perfume. She's undone for a moment, then reaches "for the bottle of aftershave on Josh's bureau and patted some on her neck and arms. If you were going to smell like one of your parents, it was better to smell like the one who wasn't dead." She's equally convincing when she writes about Wendy's developing relationship with her loner dad and her growing understanding that Josh and Louis are now her real family. This graceful book about loss and adolescence is marred only by its use of September 11 as its milieu. Maynard sketches in some scenes at Ground Zero and some firefighter characters, but in the main the book is really about a girl and her dead mother. Using the Trade Center tragedy as a jumping-off point doesn't deepen the story; in fact, it seems a bit opportunistic. Maynard should have trusted the elegant, compassionate material at the heart of her book. --Claire Dederer
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From Publishers Weekly
While the first 50-odd pages of Maynard's (To Die For; At Home in the World)new novel are emotionally harrowing, perseverance is rewarded. Set both in Brooklyn and the small town of Davis, Calif., following the events of September 11, the book tells the coming-of-age story of a girl whose mother goes to work one morning and doesn't come back. Wendy, who must bear the burden of having the last conversation with her mother end in anger, must also help care for her four-year old half-brother, Louie, while her stepfather, Josh, struggles to deal with his own grief. Attempting to escape her depressing surroundings and numb state of mind, Wendy leaves her family and best friend to live in California with her estranged father, Garrett. There she meets a colorful cast of characters, including Garrett's cactus-loving girlfriend, Carolyn. She also encounters bookstore owner Alan, who affectionately cares for his autistic son; a young single mother struggling to parent her newborn; and a homeless skateboarding teenager in search of his long-lost brother. The lack of quotation marks to set off dialogue makes the text difficult to read at times, and Louie seems a little too adult, even for a precocious child, but the intense subject matter and well-crafted flashbacks make for a worthy read. Though some may be tempted to charge Maynard with exploiting a national tragedy, most readers will find the novel an honest and touching story of personal loss, explored with sensitivity and tact. Maynard brings national tragedy to a personal level, and while the loss and heartache of her characters are certainly fictional, the emotions her story provokes are very real.
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