For better or worse, Joyce Maynard is best known for her memoir At Home in the World, which chronicled (among other things) a year-long love affair Maynard had with J.D Salinger when she was 18 and the reclusive Catcher in the Rye author was 53. It should be added, however, that Maynard has slowly but surely compiled an impressive body of fiction, including 2009’s Labor Day, which was turned into a 2013 film starring Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet.
Maynard’s latest is the cleverly titled Under the Influence. Helen’s marriage to Dwight, initially exciting, has fallen apart. Then one evening, a habit of drinking too much wine before bed has disastrous consequences: Helen loses custody of her beloved son, Ollie. Having kicked booze, Helen—a photographer who must also do catering service to make extra money—meets and falls under the influence of a glamorous, wealthy “magic couple” named Ava and Swift. They seem to be everything Helen wants to be—and more importantly, they offer to help Helen win back custody of Ollie.
At times Maynard’s characters are drawn a touch heavy-handed, so that readers are likely to see the looming problems in Helen’s life long before she does. Nevertheless, Maynard deftly portrays Helen’s sense of helplessness and vulnerability as events build to a disturbing climax. Under the Influence is ultimately an absorbing portrait of complex characters confronting real problems.
Update: A previous version of this review listed Josh Brolin as an Oscar winner. We have corrected the error online.