Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel “Labor Day” has been turned into a movie starring Kate Winslet and James Brolin that will be in theaters Jan. 31.
The novel has been reissued with a new cover, taken from the movie. It is a cinematic story, even though most of it takes place in the home of Adele, a divorced mom who lives with her 13-year-old son Henry.
Henry narrates the story, set in the mid-1980s. His mom is nearly agoraphobic, preferring to stay home and only venturing out every month or so to go grocery shopping for nonperishable items like canned soup and powdered milk, and filling their freezer with frozen dinners.
She used to be a dancer, but now works occasionally, selling vitamins over the phone. His dad moved out years ago, and has a new family now, with a stepson Henry’s age and a new baby daughter.
As the story unwinds, we find out what exactly happened to make Adele so sad and lonely, and why Henry’s dad left the family. Henry has a weekly dinner with his father’s new family, but he feels uncomfortable with them, and their questions about his mother’s mental status.
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Henry isn’t popular at school; he has no athletic ability and gets picked on by the jocks and cool kids. Adele doesn’t have any friends, either, so it is Adele and Henry against the world.
As the new school year approaches, Adele takes Henry shopping for jeans at the Pricemart. While Henry is looking at the comic books, he sees a man standing next to him.
The man’s leg is bleeding. He tells Henry a story about injuring himself in the store and needing Henry and Adele’s help.
Although Henry isn’t sure what is going on, he brings the man to his mother, who agrees to help the man. The three leave the store and get into Adele’s car, where the man tells her to drive home.
The man’s name is Frank and he is an escaped convict. He is kind and solicitous of Adele and Henry, acting more like a guest in their home than someone holding them hostage. Is he being manipulative or sincere?
Frank offers to fix things around the neglected home, and cooks real meals for them — eggs and homemade biscuits for breakfast, “the best chili you’ll ever have” for dinner, and when a neighbor drops off fresh peaches and warns them of the on-the-loose convict, a delicious peach pie.
As Frank teaches Henry the secret to the perfect pie crust, he tells them his life story. His parents died in a car accident and his grandparents took him in. They lived in Vermont and sold pumpkins and Christmas trees they grew on their farm.
He served in Vietnam, and when he came home, married the girl he was dating before he left for war. The marriage wasn’t good, and its downfall led to a situation that caused him to end up in prison.
Frank and Adele are drawn to each other, perhaps because both find it “hard going out in the world.” They begin a relationship that, at first, Henry likes because his mother is happier than he has seen her in years — and for once he is not responsible for his mother’s happiness, a big burden for a young man. They feel like a real family.
But soon it seems like Henry is a third wheel. He listens to Frank and Adele at night in her bedroom, and feels lonely. He wishes he had a girlfriend, and even though he thinks about sex and girls at school all the time, he can’t talk to them.
The idyll can’t last forever. Frank is a wanted man, and the cops believe that since he was injured in his escape, he is probably still in the area. How long can they keep this up?
I like the relationship between Adele and Henry; it is realistic, and Maynard seems to capture the feelings of a 13-year-old boy, who is becoming a young man so well.
Frank and Adele’s blossoming relationship is intriguing, too. Here are two lonely, sad people who have found each other under improbable circumstances and forged a real connection. You want to see them happy, but somehow it seems impossible.
The end of the novel is heartbreaking, but I like that we fast-forward to find out what happens to Henry and Adele and Frank. If you like character-driven stories, “Labor Day” is a good read for you.
Diane LaRue is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and blogs about books at http://bookchickdi.blogspot.com. You can follow her on Twitter @bookchickdi, and she can be emailed at email@example.com.