For Henry, the likable 13-year-old narrator of Joyce Maynard's moving new novel, Labor Day weekend is shaping up like the rest of his lonely summer with nothing to do except watch television, play with his hamster and fantasize about his female classmates … It is a testament to Maynard's skill that she makes this ominous setup into a convincing and poignant coming-of-age tale. As she has revealed in her memoirs and five previous novels, Maynard has had her own share of unsuitable attachments (including an intense pen pal relationship with a convicted murderer). She understands the deep yearnings that drive people to impulsive decisions and sometimes reckless behavior.
Reduced to its broad outlines, Labor Day can't help sounding a little ridiculous: a goofy mash-up of Mary Poppins, The Bridges of Madison County and Cape Fear, minus the fear. But there is a lot more to it than that. Like all the fiction Joyce Maynard has written, her new novel may lack many of the literary qualities thought necessary to create a convincing illusion, yet it will not be dismissed. It insists on having its say … Backed up by [Maynard’s] autobiographical information, Labor Day begins to make much more sense. It too is haunted by impossible fantasies of a happy home. And it too features a scarred adult who looks back on the ruin of his childhood in an attempt to make some sense of it. Its best moments come straight from real life.
Maynard is masterful at the offhand details that reveal three people at their wits' ends. Frank, on the lam, offers to buy Henry a puzzle book but needs to give him an IOU ‘since at the moment his funds were limited.’ Adele pours a gallon of milk on the floor after being grilled by a social worker about child custody. ‘It was like she was missing the outer layer of skin that allows people to get through the day without bleeding all the time,’ observes Henry's father about his ex-wife. ‘The world got to be too much for her.’ But the novel's most convincing voice is Henry, poised between little boy and mouthy teen. Wise and wide-eyed and forthright, he's Holden Caulfield without the edge, and the pleasure of this novel comes from listening to his narrative take on what he sees.