The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard was originally published in 2003. My hardcover copy is 390 pages. To summarize the plot as simply as possible,Wendy is a thirteen year old who lives with her mother, stepfather, and half-brother in NYC. Wendy's mother dies in the 9/11 attack on the WTC and she ends up moving to Davis, CA, to live with her father, with whom she has had very limited contact in the last several years. The Usual Rules is about Wendy's healing, search for inner strength, and a realization what defines a family.
Maynard's Looking Back was a book I read right after it was published back in the 70's and it hit a chord with me at that time. Then I recently read her memoir, At Home in the World, but I have never read any of her fiction. After reading many rave reviews of The Usual Rules, I decided to give it a try.
Maynard is a compelling story teller and a good writer - IF you can overlook her lack of standard punctuation, like quotation marks for dialogue. (I did find this very distracting at times.) There were also details and characters in the story that stretch credibility. The whole novel reads like a YA novel, which it is considered to be by some, and people and reactions are very idealized. Character flaws are there, but somehow they have a glossy sheen to them rather than being real and gritty. When Wendy is skipping school, wandering alone around Davis or in San Francisco (at night), meeting people and she experiences no negative consequences, it didn't ring true. I also would not give it to a young teen to read.
But what really bothered me the most was the use of the 9/11 attack on the WTC as a vehicle to explore grief in a young teen who loses her mother. Considering the publication date, 2003, it seems opportunistic. After reading the first 50 pages, I had to turn to the back of the book and read Maynard's Afterword and Acknowledgements to see that she had talked to some teens who lost parents. But I still almost set the book aside for that reason alone. The names of the victims of the 9/11 attack are known and the wound is still raw in many across the country. I wish that Maynard had created a car accident or some other way to explore grief in this character and her family. I would not have read this book in 2003.
But I did finish The Usual Rules now. It is a very compelling book in spite of it's flaws. I'm rating it a 4.
" It was a story Wendy knew well, how she got her name." first sentence
"Later, she would consider what she was doing at the exact second it happened." pg. 21
"Treats made trouble, just like she said." pg. 29
"They didn't know much, but they knew a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. Her mother's building." pg. 30
"Does God know about this? Louie asked." pg. 37
"More and more lately, Wendy found herself feeling like a person in a play who's trying to remember her lines." pg. 75
"In September, everything she loved - songs on the radio and clothes and flavors of ice cream and types of dogs, leaf piles and roller skates and skating, and Japanese animation movies and sushi and shopping and the clarinet and splashing in the waves at Nantucket with her brother - had melted away, not gone maybe, but this was almost worse: still there, but robbed of any capacity to give pleasure, like a soup with so many ingredients that, in the end, it tastes of nothing, like what happens when you mix all the wonderful colors of paint and it turns out that together what they add up to is brown." pg. 227