By Joyce Maynard
309 pages, $25.99
By Karen Brady
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
“I was always looking for excitement, until I found some,” the young narrator in Joyce Maynard’s latest novel confides.
One can imagine Maynard herself having the same thought in 1972 when she – age 18 and already a promising writer – found her live-in relationship with the revered 53-year-old American author and recluse, J.D. Salinger, suddenly crumbling.
It was a 10-month event neither she nor the literary world has ever forgotten – making Maynard’s writing life a double-edged sword all the years since, and perhaps never more so than at this moment.
There is an exhaustive new biography, “Salinger,” in bookstores – and a documentary of the same name on movie screens, the two linked by screenwriter Shane Salerno, co-author of the book and director of the film. Maynard appears in both (cutting her late mentor no slack).
But! Maynard is also awaiting the December release of Jason Reitman’s film adaptation of her 2009 novel “Labor Day” (starring Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet) – and is making East Coast-West Coast author rounds on behalf of her newly published novel, “After Her.”
This is an intriguing, quietly suspenseful book – a coming-of-age murder mystery, if you will, involving two adolescent sisters whose playground is the foothills of Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco.
Our narrator is Rachel, 13, the more suggestive – and cerebral – of the sisters. Patty, at 11, is the athlete and animal-lover, the often silent but more practical of the two: A clear symbiosis, and perhaps a necessary one for the siblings are often left to fend for themselves, their mother “fragile,” their father unexpectedly gone from their day-to-day lives.
“After our father left, we liked it better out of our house than in,” Rachel explains the fact that she and Patty spend their days roaming the near paths and far approaches to Tamalpais; their nights watching another family’s television – from outside, through a picture window, and thus without sound.
At home, as Rachel puts it, “things kept breaking, options narrowed. Every month we seemed to have less of everything but unopened bills and the smell of cigarettes. Inside, we could feel the sadness and the disappointment of our mother, and as much as we loved her, we had to get away or we would be swallowed up in it too. But beyond the four walls of our falling-down house, anything was possible.”
Indeed. Maynard gives her young sisters a rich natural life as they explore their beckoning mountain: “For most children in our neighborhood,” Rachel tells us, “the vast expanse of open land abutting our houses had been off limits, for fear of snakes or coyote attacks, or, more likely, poison oak. But Patty and I rambled where we chose. Our only limits: how far our legs could carry us.”
But, if there is an idyll here, there is also yearning – as the girls try different neighbors’ picture windows for their TV evenings, spreading a picnic blanket on the cold ground and, while imagining the dialogue, almost certainly seeking a healthier concept of family for themselves.
Sad as this may seem, Maynard softens it all with the humor to be found in all this untethered adolescence. She has written young adult as well as adult fiction and nonfiction, and is good with “tweens” and teens.
Plus, here she has – as the perfect buffer – Marin County detective Anthony Torricelli, the girls’ father and the individual placed in charge of one of the most notorious serial killer cases in the county’s history.
Movie-star handsome, and on TV every night following the start of the killings, on Mount Tamalpais, Torricelli becomes an admired local celebrity – bolstering the girls’ status at school (something only Rachel cares about) and adding real meat to Maynard’s “After Her.”
Torricelli, like the mountain, is an anchor here – pulling together disparate parts of the girls’ meanderings and observations of others while becoming a sympathetic figure (despite his presumed insensitivity in leaving his family) when more bodies are found, and the veteran detective cannot solve the case.
Maynard creates a community of neighbors on the mountain (one of whom, the “mysterious” Albert Armitage, Rachel is convinced is the killer) as well as one Margaret Ann, the woman for whom Torricelli purportedly left his marriage. There is a fullness, a maturity to this work – although Rachel’s constant reminders to us that she has not, yet, experienced her first period seem both overdone and tacked-on (as do the “visions” she has of the killer, a psychological possibility, surely, but extraneous here).
Two “sisters” also figured in Maynard’s 2010 novel, “The Good Daughters,” a wonderful depiction of America’s oldest family farm but an obvious book otherwise, the two sisters interesting but flat compared to the flesh and bones feel of Rachel and Patty, the focus of “After Her.”
Maynard, who dwells on Mount Tamalpais herself, reveals, in her fascinating Acknowledgments at the end of the novel, that Rachel and Patty are based on two actual sisters:
“Living as I do on the side of Mount Tamalpais, I have experienced the mountain as a daily presence – out of my window, and under my feet as I hike it – for the 17 years I’ve made my home in California. I had been dimly aware for as long as I’ve lived here that a series of murders once took place on this mountain so close to where I live. But it was two adult sisters – Janet Cubley and Laura Xerogeanes, whom I first met when they showed up in my living room to attend one of my daylong writing workshops – who shared with me the story from their own lives (and largely played out on Mount Tamalpais) that inspired this one. They also gave me their blessing to change as much as I wanted, and I did.”
“After Her” is a bit top heavy with the yin-yang of Rachel and Patty – but, all in all, the novel succeeds. Maynard is wonderful, as always, with era and with place and nearly every page here produces a smile.
Would Salinger approve? To Maynard, the question has obviously long been immaterial. And that is, clearly, our gain.
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.