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Book review: Joyce Maynard's 'Labor Day' is a coming of age amid peril

Thirteen-year-old Henry has lived alone with his reclusive mother, Adele, since her divorce years earlier. His weekly dinners with his father and his stepfamily are excruciatingly awkward and dull. He has no friends at school. There is nothing and no one in his life other than his mother and his hamster, Joe.

While out on a rare trip at the store, Henry is approached by a bleeding man who asks him for a ride. Both Henry and Adele are so unused to human contact, so unsure of what constitutes normalcy, that they agree to take him to their home and help fix his injuries.

Frank, it turns out, is a murderer who escaped after 18 years in prison. What follows is a Labor Day weekend like no other: a coming of age for Henry, an awakening for Adele, and a second chance at life for Frank.

It is hard to wrap one's mind around the concept that an escaped convict holing up in your home and tying you to a chair is a good thing. Even as Frank bakes them a pie, even as he plays catch with Henry and teaches him to throw a baseball properly, even as Adele and Frank fall in love, there's an underlying sense of menace.

Is this real? Is Frank a decent man dealt an awful hand in life or is he a charismatic swindler, playing these damaged, naive pawns? Maynard uses that tension like a rocket to propel the reader through the book. There are hints and clues along the way, but no clear answer until the very end.

The novel is an extended meditation on the nature of love, grief and loneliness. As Adele and Frank gradually reveal the blows that life has dealt them, Henry struggles in the jaws of puberty to think straight and decide what really matters. Maynard has created an ensemble of characters that will sneak into your heart, and warm it while it breaks.

Tammar Stein is the author of the young adult novels "Light Years" and "High Dive." Her novel "Kindred" will be published in 2010.

Labor Day

By Joyce



Morrow, 244 pages, $24.99

Book review: Joyce Maynard's 'Labor Day' is a coming of age amid peril 08/29/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 29, 2009 4:30am]
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