It’s only fitting that I just finished Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard, today, the week before Labor Day weekend. It was a really good book and I am glad that I brought it with me on vacation.
Labor Day is about a five day period in the life of Henry, a thirteen year-old boy living in New Hampshire with a depressed, agoraphobic mother named Adele. His father has a new family and takes him out once a week for dinner. But Henry is lonely and burdened by the responsibility of taking care of his mother, who depends on him for companionship. One day, when Henry has convinced her to take him shopping for school clothes, a man approaches them and says that he needs their help. It turns out that the man is Frank, an escaped convict who needs someone to take him in and hide him from the police. To his great surprise, Adele agrees.
Labor Day is told from the perspective of a thirteen year-old boy, so the narration is rather simple. But the themes he tackles – love, sex, parenthood, miscarriages, death of a baby, loneliness – are not simple at all. Henry’s observations of his mother’s relationship with Frank, combined with his own budding feelings about girls, are powerful and poignant. The book is sad, even haunting at times. But it’s a deeply moving and memorable read. I especially enjoyed the last chapter, where a thirty-one year-old Henry looks back on that summer and the paths his life took from there. The sentences grew more sophisticated and complex in that section of the book – like their narrator – a literary tweak that I appreciated as I read.
I loved this passage, in which Henry’s father describes Adele: “She was in love with love. She couldn’t do anything partway. She felt everything so deeply, it was like the world was too much for her. Any time she’d hear a story about some kid who had cancer, or an old man whose wife died, or his dog even, it was like it happened to her. It was like she was missing the outer layer of skin that allows people to get through the day without bleeding all the time. The world got to be too much for her. Me, I’d just as soon stay a little bit numb.”
This Amazon link has an essay by Joyce Maynard about the different obsessions in her life that explain how she created Labor Day. I always enjoy reading about how authors decide what to write about, and how much is taken from their own experience.
This was my first Joyce Maynard novel, and it definitely won’t be my last. Highly recommended.
[This book came from a used book sale. I just saw what I spent on it it – $3 – which means I grossly underpaid for the pleasure of reading and owning this book.]