Under the Influence by Joyce Maynard
eBook review copy; 336 pages
Under the Influence by Joyce Maynard is a very highly
recommended novel about a woman desperate for family.
Helen is a photographer who works as a school portrait photographer.
She lives for her son, Ollie and the weekends she gets to see him - if
it all works out with her ex. Helen lost custody of Ollie three years
ago after she was arrested for a DUI. She can tell Ollie is drifting
away from her and yet she feels powerless to do anything about it. Since
the DUI, she's been sober, but her ex won't believe it.
When Helen is working as a server for a catered gallery event one
night, she meets Ava and Swift Havilland. Ava immediately takes Helen
under her wing and befriends her. Ava and Swift are incredibly wealthy.
Currently they have started a charity devoted to rescuing dogs. Ava is
wheelchair bound, but she still seems bigger than life. Once Helen
starts seeing Ava regularly and helping her, she becomes more and more
enmeshed with their lives and their inner circle of friends.
When Ollie, 7 years old, actually gets to spend a weekend with Helen,
she takes him over to their house and introduces him to Ava and Swift.
Ollie is immediately entranced by Swift, who teaches him to swim in
their pool and becomes a larger-than-life male role model in his young
life. It seems that their life has done nothing but improve with Ava and
Helen muses in the opening "There had been a time when a day didn’t go by that I didn’t hear
her voice. Nearly everything I did was directly inspired by what
Ava told me, or didn’t even have to tell me, because I knew
already what Ava would think, and whatever that was, that’s what I
believed, too. (Then came a long, dark time after she cut me out
of her world, and the hard reality of that betrayal became—second
only to losing custody of my son—the defining fact of my life.)
Losing Ava’s friendship had left me unable to remember who I might
be anymore without her. As strong a force as her presence had
created, her absence was stronger yet."
So, we know right from the start that something is going to go
terribly wrong with this friendship, but it takes the whole book to
reveal what happened. I was totally engrossed in this story from start
to finish, speculating what was going to happen to cause the total loss
of this friendship. Helen is exceptionally needy; she desperately wants
the closeness of a family and Ava and Swift are fulfilling that role for
her. But the question at the back of my mind while reading Under the Influence was: "What are Ava and Swift getting from this friendship and all their generosity? Can anyone be this altruistic?"
Yes, they are both very egocentric, but Helen seems to just to see
their good point. Even when she meets a great guy, they discourage her
relationship with him because he's best described as just nice and
boring. Helen really likes him, but they discourage her relationship
with anyone but them. I found this novel captivating as it explored what
lengths people will go to to control others and demand exclusivity in
friendships as their due while they protect their self-interests.
Maynard is an incredibly talented writer. The slow unfolding of the
complete story is well-paced. You know right from the start that
something is going to happen and that alone will keep you reading as
more and more is revealed. You will be guessing and second guessing what
is going to happen. The character of Helen is wonderfully developed and
written as if she is a real person, with flaws and shortcomings. Helen
is not perfect, but you will know that she loves Ollie more than
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy
of HarperCollins for review