Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Review: Count the Ways by Joyce Maynard

Joyce Maynard's books can be wildly different from each other. What always endures in her stories though, is an amazing depth of characterization, an intricate look at the lives of the people she's created, and a sympathy for their choices. This same sensibility is on display in her novel Count the Ways, even if the reader doesn't always feel as connected and in concert with the characters as their creator clearly does.

Eleanor and Cam fall in love and create a family in the late 1970s in rural New Hampshire. Eleanor, who was raised by emotionally distant parents, has always wanted a close and loving family. She writes and illustrates a series of quite successful children's books when she is still in college, enabling her to buy the rustic New Hampshire farmhouse she falls in love with. Shortly thereafter she falls in love with Cam, who she meets at a craft fair where he is selling his lovingly handcrafted wooden bowls. Together they create the exact life Eleanor has always wanted, or do they? Several years and three children later, their lives are not nearly as idyllic as they once were. Cam doesn't earn any money, spending his days either playing with the kids or with his head in the clouds, certain that everything will work out. Eleanor, on the other hand, resents what she sees as his carefree and irresponsible attitude towards life, a life she funds entirely, with ever dwindling royalties and contract work she doesn't love. When a tragedy happens on Cam's watch, the already present cracks in their marriage widen even further until everything falls apart.

Opening with the family launching small wooden boats filled with cork people in the brook by their house, the symbolism of the people, some of whom reappear downstream, some of whom disappear, some of whom get waylaid in the long grasses along the brook, and some of whom bob to the surface long after their expected arrival in the calm shallows, is very clearly a metaphor for the story set to unfold in the pages ahead. Eleanor returns to the farm for the wedding of her oldest child, reflecting back on her life, coming to the farm and then leaving it, creating a family and then letting it go. Eleanor remembers when life was postcard perfect, with slow narration already feeling bittersweet, thanks to occasional reminders that it's all going to end. And end it does.

The story spans decades of this family's life, the ways that they hurt each other, but also the ways that they love each other. Eleanor comes across as a bit of a doormat or perhaps a martyr, allowing Cam to not only appear to be the good, fun-time dad he's always been but to keep the farm house that she purchased, to keep the children with him, and to hide his part in the disintegration of their marriage, causing their children to become estranged from her. Her inability to forgive him for the accident that happened on his watch seems to require her to sacrifice everything that was once hers, never mind that she has made every other sacrifice in their marriage leading up to this event. Beyond infuriating. Cam comes across as a perpetual Peter Pan and it is hardly surprising that Eleanor comes to find his attitude aggravating and to resent his laissez faire approach to life. The only surprise is that it takes so long and such a devastating accident for it to happen. There is a lot of unnecessary repetition of imagery here, especially of the cork people, abandoning all subtlety and failing to trust the reader's intelligence. It is extremely slow and feels a bit unbalanced between the before and after of the accident. It's very much a reflective character study, an examination of family, of forgiveness between partners and between parents and children. It is a story of sacrifice and letting go, of the challenge and imperfection of love, and of the ways that the life we might want may not, in the end, be the life we get, or even the life we do in fact want. Perhaps if I hadn't been irritated with the characters most of the time, I wouldn't have felt as if this dragged but as it was, I found it weary, the predictability of Eleanor and Cam, the breakdown of their marriage, and the adult children's exasperating reactions to their mother. There were some surprises along the way and I did appreciate those but overall, this wasn't as much for me as I'd hoped it would be.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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