Friday, June 10, 2011

The Good Daughters

The Good Daughters: A NovelIn the past I had the opportunity to apprise you of the amazing talent of this author, Joyce Maynard. It makes me think about, for the 1000th time, how many talented, insightful writers are out there quietly plying their trade every day who never make it to the "top ten." How can it be that we, as a society, pride ourselves on the mediocre when we could so easily be known for our appreciation of the outstanding? Why do my sweet little old lady customers at the library prefer James Patterson or Steig Larsson to an author like Joyce Maynard? I'll never get it.

This heartfelt novel, The Good Daughters, revolves around the 4th of July birthday (Jess, read no further) of two babies, born in the same hospital, Dana Dickerson and Ruth Plank. The story is told in alternating chapters between the two women as they come of age, each trying to adapt to and be accepted in the lives they've chosen, which don't necessarily conform with the futures their families may have envisioned for them.

Each woman is interesting and lovely in her own right. Ruth, the unexpected baby, rejected by her very unhappy mother Connie, a straight-laced, church-going farm wife, partner but reluctant lover to Edwin, whose family has owned the Plank farm for generations. Plodding along for decades, doing what's expected but nothing more, the Planks grown their strawberries, sell fresh vegetables during the short New Hampshire season, and live an anachronistic life that Ruth, a spirited artist can't wait to escape from.

Dana, on the other hand, has suffered as the child of selfish, nomadic parents, who schlep their family from state to state, following father George's latest get-rich-quick schemes that never pan out. Mom seems detached from all emotion, an artist who prefers the company of her canvases and paints to that of her lonely daughter and spaced out son Ray.

It's the old nature vs. nurture conundrum taken to a new level. In gorgeous prose, Ms. Maynard takes us into the hearts of these tragic, confused characters as they try to navigate the very difficult task of living as responsible adults who have never truly understood their innermost selves.

Ruth harbors a life long fascination, I should say a soul shattering connection, to Dana's quirky brother Ray. Every summer Connie Plank oddly insists on the requisite visit to the Dickerson family so that the "birthday sisters" can spend time together. Of course, Ruth and Dana have little in common and being forced to spend time together exacerbates their reluctance to socialize. These sojourns do, however, allow the spark to ignite between Ray and Ruth who years later will have the chance to act on their attraction to each other with complicated, tragic results.

Dana, on the other hand, falls in love with Clarice, a college professor for whom "coming out" back in the '60's was a sure way to sabotage the tenure track. Their idyllic, long term relationship is one of the amazing strengths of Ms. Maynard's novel. Dana is a woman inexplicably drawn to the land. A nurturer, she buys a farm, raises strawberries, flowers, and goats, establishing an Eden where she and Clarice can escape the judgment of the outside world.  Never have I read such a deeply moving description of a long term love affair challenged, but never hobbled by, tremendous social and physical troubles.

I can't say enough about the beauty of Ms. Maynard's writing, in her previous novel, Labor Day, and in her latest, The Good Daughters. I find myself sighing with satisfaction at the end of certain chapters and relishing the next ones. At the risk of going out on a limb, I believe that one can often get the sense of a person through their words and I feel that Joyce Maynard has an extraordinarily kind soul. There isn't an ounce of judgment or recrimination in her work. Instead, one feels that she embraces  all of humanity with its foibles, weaknesses, desires and joys. This is a woman I would love to know.

Read more about Ms. Maynard at

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