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Under the Influence
By Joyce Maynard
William Morrow / HarperCollins
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
One of the things that I'm working on in my personal life this year is to better acknowledge and cultivate my capacity for empathy; for those who don't know, that's not when you feel sorry for someone (that's instead sympathy), but when you try to imagine what it must be like to actually be that person, to walk that proverbial mile in their shoes, which in the best cases leads to a profound new understanding of and connection to that person in question, and thus is of better help to that struggling person than any feeling sorry for them could be.
I was thinking of all this a lot this week while reading through popular author Joyce Maynard's newest novel, Under the Influence, because I have to admit that it's one of those books that I have an only so-so relationship with (a delicate and slow-moving character study by an academic veteran), concerning the kind of female protagonist who often drives me crazy. A mousy suburban middle-classer out in nondescript California, our hero Helen also has a drinking problem, not exactly a terrible one and a habit she already has under control by the time our particular story begins; but it was enough that when she once had to drive her injured little son to the hospital one night years ago when actively drunk, then got caught by the police doing so, her domineering ex-husband was able to show enough of a pattern of her habitual drinking to get her custody of the boy completely taken away from her. And so our story, taking place several years later, is just basically a plot-light look at what her life is like in this post-DUI time, where she does all those self-righteous things that mousy middle-class suburban women do that drive me so crazy, like make negative judgments about every single guy she meets at Match.com while never acknowledging the Victorian steamer full of baggage she's carrying around on her own back, then letting an older wealthy couple she's recently become friends with convince her that the one decent guy she actually meets through the dating service is too wishy-washy and not worth her time.
But instead of my usual habit of condemning Helen and quitting the novel halfway through, I decided to exercise some of my newfound empathy skills and stay with her story, trying to imagine as I read what it must be like to be one of these nondescript middle-aged divorcees, who are trying to lead a normal life again but who don't come across very well on paper. And I'm glad I did, because as this story continues, it blossoms and gets a lot richer in both tone and stakes than you might imagine at the beginning it would; and it's then that we come to realize why the book is called Under the Influence -- not necessarily because of her alcohol problems, which really only serve as character background, but because Helen's bigger problem is that she lets the people around her blindly dictate how she's going to think and act about the world. And that suddenly makes this a much more interesting story, and helps explain things like her mentally bullying ex who she can't seem to stand up against; and this especially makes for a great climax to the book, when the schism between her wealthy patron friends and her new accountant boyfriend starts becoming a lot bigger and a lot more direct (but I'll leave the details a surprise until you can read them yourself), and Helen is forced to choose, almost for the first time in her life, between two competing groups of friends' influences over how she herself is going to see her life and world.
Make no mistake, this book will drive some people crazy, a virtual blueprint for a Lifetime TV movie whose vague Hillary-Oprah-Nancy-Grace-adherent protagonist (you know the kind of person I'm talking about) is deeply flawed in such a highly realistic way that she will immediately remind you of all those women in real life like this who you can barely stand being around. But as an astute and moving look at what makes women like these tick, its hyper-realism is a big asset, and makes it easy to see why Maynard's previous books have been such big hits within this very crowd. It comes recommended in this spirit, although with the warning that you'll need to do some mental shifting to enjoy this if you're not a Hillary-Oprah-Nancy-Gracer yourself.
Out of 10: 8.8