Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review: Under the Influence by Joyce Maynard

Have you ever met someone who was completely seductive? I don't mean that in a sexual way either. There are some people in this world who draw you in, sometimes positively but just as often negatively. They have a charisma that convinces you that you've discovered a gem in them, a new immediate best friend, someone you want to spend as much time as possible with, someone who makes you feel special and valued. I have met a few people like this in my life and there's nothing like the feeling of being taken into their inner ring. But sometimes occupying that space comes with a cost you couldn't predict in the first flush of enraptured friendship. Joyce Maynard's most recent novel, Under the Influence, details not only the spellbinding relationship but also what happens when a character opens her eyes to the actual people by whom she is so enchanted.

Helen's drinking destroyed the life she'd built for herself. It lost her custody of her son, the only bright spot she has in an otherwise lonely life. Devastated by losing Ollie, Helen works on improving herself in hopes that she'll eventually get her boy back. She attends AA faithfully and has stayed sober for years. She works as a school portrait photographer and moonlights as a server for a catering company. She goes on occasional dates from Match.com but there's no one special in her life. She's got one friend who she counts on every now and then but she's mainly alone, her father having never been in her life and her mother being an indifferent and unmaternal alcoholic herself. When Helen meets a lovely woman named Ava Havilland at an art benefit where Helen is a server and Ava is buying art, Helen is completely enchanted. Telling Ava that she herself is a photographer, even if she hasn't shot anything but school pictures in forever, the two strike up the beginnings of an almost obsessive (on Helen's part) friendship. Helen becomes a frequent visitor to the Havilland home and feels as if she is almost a member of the family, adopted by this captivating woman and her magnetic and charismatic husband, Swift. She starts to do them small favors as friends do for each other and they in turn enfold her into their fabulously, wealthy wonderland life.

Helen shares the heartbreaks of her life with Ava even though she gets little similar information in return. She is dazzled by the Havillands and the near perfection of their life. Just about the time Helen meets a quiet, loyal, and unassuming man named Elliott, she is given some expanded access to Ollie by her ex-husband and she folds her son easily into her life with Ava and Swift. Eight year old Ollie is as enchanted by them as she is, maybe even more so. Elliott, on the other hand, is not so taken with them. In fact, as an accountant he is really only curious about the new nonprofit called BARK they are creating to spay and neuter pets all over the country. The Havillands don't take to Elliott either, dubbing him a bean counter and damning him with faint praise. Helen is torn, especially when her best chance of regaining custody of Ollie might be with support from Swift and Ava.

Told from the perspective of years after the fact and narrated by a more self-aware Helen, it is immediately obvious that something has caused a rift between Helen and the Havillands but it takes most of the novel to find out just what that is. There are occasional interjections by present day Helen into her narration of the unfolding past that offer a hint at her feelings now and what she feels she should have recognized back then. These interjections serve to keep the reader alert to the undercurrents swirling through the narration and elevate the narrative tension quite effectively. Maynard has drawn Helen very convincingly as a woman who craves validation from others and is vulnerable in this need. Helen's own story-telling abilities don't protect her from falling under the influence of others and in fact make her inability to see people as they truly are sad. Helen is truly under the influence, first of alcohol and then, more importantly, of the power and allure of the Havillands. Used to having her life dictated to her by others, she fails to see the real place she occupies in the Havilland solar system and it will take a truly shocking incident to open her eyes. This said, she herself is not an entirely likable character, making terrible choices and allowing herself to be blinded the way she is. Swift and Ava are glittering, brittle characters whose kindnesses are undercut by something a little sinister, a little condescending, a little disturbing. And so the story is brilliantly set. The novel is both an indictment of the moneyed who wield their bank books as weapons and a look at the power of finally directing your own life and having the courage to rescue yourself. It is well written and suspenseful and the reader will fall under its spell just as truly as Helen fell under Swift and Ava's.

For more information about Joyce Maynard and the book, check out her author website or like her on Facebook. Also, check out the book's Good Reads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the HarperCollins for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Ooh, this sounds rather chilling! Not in a scary kind of way, but in a "wow, I can't believe people are like this" kind of way. I can see myself getting completely sucked into this book.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!


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