Sunday, February 21, 2016

Under the Influence

Under the Influence by Joyce Maynard
HarperCollins: 2/23/16
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062257642 

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 Swift.

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 anything else.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins for review purposes.

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