I’d never heard of Joyce Maynard before an uncorrected proof of her book, The Good Daughters, came into my hands, but a little Googling gave me a juicy an interesting discovery: when she was in college, she was in a relationship with a fifty-plus J.D. Salinger!

Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia:

She entered Yale University in 1971 and sent a collection of her writings to the editors of The New York Times Magazine. They asked her to write an article for them, which was published as “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back On Life” in the magazine’s April 23, 1972 issue. The article prompted a letter from J. D. Salinger, then 53 years old, who complimented her writing and warned her of the dangers of publicity.

They exchanged 25 letters, and Maynard dropped out of Yale the summer after her freshman year to live with Salinger in Cornish, New Hampshire.[1] Maynard spent ten months living in Salinger’s Cornish home, during which time she completed work on her first book, Looking Back, a memoir that was published in 1973. Her relationship with Salinger ended abruptly just prior to the book’s publication; according to Salinger’s daughter Margaret, he ended things because Maynard wanted children but Salinger felt he was too old.[2] According to Maynard’s memoir, he cut off the relationship suddenly while on a family vacation with her and with his two children; she was stunned and begged him to take her back. According to Maynard, she had dropped out of Yale to be with him, forgoing a scholarship. She never finished college.

That actually got me a little more interested in the book.

I must admit I’m not a big fan of contemporary American fiction. Nothing against American writers (edit: and Fantaghiro23 below has pointed out I’ve been reading all the wrong ones), but there’s a certain formula that doesn’t appeal to me: small town America + dark family secret that unravels after decades of silence (or a horrifying experience that haunts the family for decades after, or something to that effect). Let’s see: The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, A Heart of Stone, and a lot of the Oprah’s book club selections (again, not a big fan).

The plot is something the reader can probably work out a few chapters. Two girls born on the same day, in the same hospital, to two very different families in rural New Hampshire. The artistic Ruth, with her head in the clouds, born into a family of practical farmers. The pragmatic and methodical Dana, in a bohemian family with liberated principles. Told in the alternating voices of Ruth and Dana, the novel follows the “birthday sisters” throughout the milestones of their lives.

Maynard’s a skilled enough writer. She manages to differentiate Ruth and Dana and establishes the contrast of their upbringing. You can also trace their growth as characters throughout the story, from little girls to grown women leading their own lives. They were interesting enough characters that I had no trouble reading the book from start to finish.

What throws me off, again, is that formula. Of course we couldn’t just have had a plausible narrative about two women sharing the same birthday. Toss in the monkey-wrench: some gut-churning, heart-wrenching revelations guaranteed to make any reader cringe.

I’m guessing some readers are okay with this, judging from the fact that there have been a lot of bestselling titles following this formula in recent years. It really isn’t my cup of tea, and I doubt I’ll ever get the hankering for these types of novels… Finding out Maynard hooked up with JD Salinger was pretty much the highlight of the book for me!

If you like this type of book though, I think I can safely say that it’s better written than a lot of other books I’ve read in this genre, so it should be a promising read. The book is due out in September, according to the back of the proof.

***

The Good Daughters, trade paperback, 3/5 stars

uncorrected proof courtesy of Fully Booked

Book #80 for 2010

[amazonify]::omakase::300:250[/amazonify]