BOOK: The narrator of Joyce Maynard's endearing Labor Day is a 13-year-old boy named Henry, who lives in a tiny New Hampshire town where everybody knows everybody else well enough to pass judgment on them. "They'd notice if you left your grass too long between one lawn mowing and the next," says Henry, "and if you painted your house some color besides white, they might not say anything to your face, but they'd talk about it." Henry is doing his best to grow up without much help from his mother, Adele, who has grown reclusive and depressed since the divorce from his father. "My mother was the kind of person who just wanted to be left alone," Henry explains. One Labor Day weekend in the late 1980s Henry manages to persuade his mother to take him shopping for school clothes. The outing leads to an encounter with a bleeding man named Frank, an escaped murderer, but instead of the story turning into a nightmarish thriller, life actually gets better for all three of these vulnerable characters.
WHY READ? In an essay at the end of the paperback edition of Labor Day, Maynard claims she is not Adele. Yet, when she was 38 and a recently divorced single mother she started corresponding with a prisoner who, it turned out, was doing time for murder. And like the escaped prisoner in her novel, the man was surprisingly decent, even lovable — or so it seemed at first. (You can read her account of the ill-fated relationship in Your Friend, Always, an essay posted on her website, joycemaynard.com.)
Labor Day, in a sense, is a happy version of that story, in which the best in each character shines through, a feel-good account of how life ought to be. The novel, short and sweet, brings to mind a Norman Rockwell painting, one in which a 13-year-old boy tries to cheer up his mother with a "Husband for a Day" coupon, and even a convicted killer knows how to make a delicate pie crust.
The novel includes a touch of treachery, but not enough to qualify as tragedy. Instead Maynard offers an uplifting story told by a boy who is just beginning to understand what life is all about.
MAKE IT: Henry receives his introduction to the secrets of pie when he comes into possession of a bucket of fresh peaches, and learns how difficult it can be to make a pie crust on a hot day. ("It's important to keep your ingredients chilled," he explains.) Making pie also serves as a gentle symbol of what Henry has learned along the way. "The baker must simply plunge into the unknown," he says. "The one thing you must never do here: hesitate. Flipping that crust over is a leap of faith."
That may be so, but it is possible to enjoy the luscious flavor of peaches — or almost any other kind of fruit — without struggling with the crust. Just make crumble. Mix the fruit with sugar and spice, put it into an ovenproof dish, and cover it with crumble mixture. When it comes out of the oven, the crisp, golden topping provides a delightful counterpoint to the sweet fruit, especially when topped with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Mark Bittman, who writes "The Minimalist" column for the Dining section of the New York Times, has developed a recipe that works reliably with a variety of fruits — the rhubarb he specifies in this recipe, as well as peaches, raspberries, apples, blueberries and various combinations. Think of his recipe as a guideline rather than a blueprint, and use it to take full advantage of any fruit that, like Henry's basket of peaches, just happens to come into your possession.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.