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Under the Influence by Joyce Maynard

Under the Influence

by Joyce Maynard

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I really liked this book about a single, recovering alcoholic mother who lost custody of her son after a relapse. Helen finds support in the friendship of a very wealthy couple who literally take her under their wings and help her get back on her feet. She works hard to try to get her son back and hopes for help from them. However, she discovers that her idols are hiding some serious flaws, and has to make some major decisions to protect her son and herself. ( )
  terran | Jun 11, 2017 |
Probably closer to a 4.5 stars
From the beginning of this tightly plotted story there's an impending sense of doom. The book starts off when Helen glimpses Ava in the back of a taxi. Ava is an old friend that she hasn't seen in years and the sighting sends her down memory lane to the events that led to the end of their friendship.

Helen was a lost soul when she met Ava. She was badly parented, divorced, and had recently lost custody of her young son. Ava and Swift are wealthy philanthropists who take an interest in Helen and soon she's under their spell. Under their influence. She had never been part of a loving family and when she met Ava, the promise of love, acceptance, and support, along with their lavish lifestyle, was difficult to resist.

There were moments I wanted to reach through the pages and shake some sense into Helen. It's so easy to judge flawed, vulnerable people if you haven't walked in their shoes, but I felt nothing but sympathy for her. It's a complicated story that makes you think long and hard about serious topics.

The ending.....well, I was holding my breath, and while it ended suddenly, I wrote the ending I wanted in my mind :)

Maynard has quickly become one of my favorite authors. Her writing is deceptively simple yet filled with nuance and depth - the mark of a great author. This was my second book by her and it won't be my last. ( )
1 vote janb37 | Feb 13, 2017 |
Joyce Maynard's fantastic novel Under the Influence is one of those books that grabs your attention right from the beginning and never lets go. It doesn't start flashy, with a grisly murder or great drama, rather we learn that protagonist is moving to a new town with her son when she sees a woman she hasn't seen in ten years.

Maynard takes the rest of the novel to share why Helen hasn't seen Ava in ten years and tells us the story of how they came to be friends. Helen was thirty-eight, divorced from her husband and trying to raise her three-year-old son on her own. She had no family to speak of, and she adored her husband's family who took her in and loved her, and then threw her out when her husband left her for another woman.

Helen turned to alcohol and when she was frantically driving her son to the hospital with a burst appendix after she had been drinking, the police stopped her and she watched helplessly as her son was taken away in an ambulance while she was taken away in handcuffs.

She lost her license and then she lost her son to her ex-husband. She had visitation twice a month for six hours and felt that her life was over. Then she met Ava and Swift, a wealthy couple who made her feel like she was worthy again.

Ava was confined to a wheelchair and her husband Swift was a larger-than-life bear of a man, a self-made millionaire who lived life to the fullest. They took Helen in under their wing, inviting her out to dinners, bringing her into their home, and eventually hiring her as a photographer.

Helen blossomed with Ava and Swift, and soon her young son Ollie, now eight, was brought into this makeshift family. Ollie was mesmerized by Swift, who acted like a child himself- all id, no superego.

Helen also began dating Elliot, an accountant she met through online dating. Elliot was the anti-Swift. He was not flashy, boring even, but Helen and Elliot liked the same things- staying in and watching old movies, trying new restaurants.

Ava and Swift did not approve of Elliot; they told Helen he was a dud and not good enough for her. Ollie didn't like Elliot either; he wasn't as exciting or cool as Swift.

The title refers not only to Helen's DUI conviction but to the way in which Helen fell under the influence of this golden couple, two people who picked her up when she was at her low point. Why couldn't Elliot understand that?

Maynard reveals these characters so slowly and brilliantly, they feel very real. Helen's anguish, loneliness and humiliation at losing her son, the only light in her life, is so visceral, you can feel it vibrate on the page.

Her imagery is vivid too, such as her description of Helen's childhood with a mother who didn't love or want her:
"I remember a great many bologna sandwiches and granola bars. A Top 40 station playing seventies hits, and the television always on. Old lottery tickets piled on the counter, never the winning number. The smell of marijuana and spilled wine. Stacks of library books under the covers of my bed: the thing that saved me."

The story has a sense of foreboding throughout. We know that something happened to destroy Ava and Helen's friendship, we are waiting for it to be revealed.

At the end of the book, the Author's Notes share that Elliot (my favorite character) is based on Maynard's husband and it made me wish that everyone had an Elliot in their life as Maynard and Helen did.

I read Under the Influence in a few hours, I truly did not want to put it down. It is a book that I will recommend and ponder and know that my thoughts will return to many times in the future. I will not forget Helen and how she loved her son with a ferociousness most mothers have in them. I give it my highest recommendation. ( )
1 vote bookchickdi | Dec 1, 2016 |
Have you ever met someone who was completely seductive? I don't mean that in a sexual way either. There are some people in this world who draw you in, sometimes positively but just as often negatively. They have a charisma that convinces you that you've discovered a gem in them, a new immediate best friend, someone you want to spend as much time as possible with, someone who makes you feel special and valued. I have met a few people like this in my life and there's nothing like the feeling of being taken into their inner ring. But sometimes occupying that space comes with a cost you couldn't predict in the first flush of enraptured friendship. Joyce Maynard's most recent novel, Under the Influence, details not only the spellbinding relationship but also what happens when a character opens her eyes to the actual people by whom she is so enchanted.

Helen's drinking destroyed the life she'd built for herself. It lost her custody of her son, the only bright spot she has in an otherwise lonely life. Devastated by losing Ollie, Helen works on improving herself in hopes that she'll eventually get her boy back. She attends AA faithfully and has stayed sober for years. She works as a school portrait photographer and moonlights as a server for a catering company. She goes on occasional dates from Match.com but there's no one special in her life. She's got one friend who she counts on every now and then but she's mainly alone, her father having never been in her life and her mother being an indifferent and unmaternal alcoholic herself. When Helen meets a lovely woman named Ava Havilland at an art benefit where Helen is a server and Ava is buying art, Helen is completely enchanted. Telling Ava that she herself is a photographer, even if she hasn't shot anything but school pictures in forever, the two strike up the beginnings of an almost obsessive (on Helen's part) friendship. Helen becomes a frequent visitor to the Havilland home and feels as if she is almost a member of the family, adopted by this captivating woman and her magnetic and charismatic husband, Swift. She starts to do them small favors as friends do for each other and they in turn enfold her into their fabulously, wealthy wonderland life.

Helen shares the heartbreaks of her life with Ava even though she gets little similar information in return. She is dazzled by the Havillands and the near perfection of their life. Just about the time Helen meets a quiet, loyal, and unassuming man named Elliott, she is given some expanded access to Ollie by her ex-husband and she folds her son easily into her life with Ava and Swift. Eight year old Ollie is as enchanted by them as she is, maybe even more so. Elliott, on the other hand, is not so taken with them. In fact, as an accountant he is really only curious about the new nonprofit called BARK they are creating to spay and neuter pets all over the country. The Havillands don't take to Elliott either, dubbing him a bean counter and damning him with faint praise. Helen is torn, especially when her best chance of regaining custody of Ollie might be with support from Swift and Ava.

Told from the perspective of years after the fact and narrated by a more self-aware Helen, it is immediately obvious that something has caused a rift between Helen and the Havillands but it takes most of the novel to find out just what that is. There are occasional interjections by present day Helen into her narration of the unfolding past that offer a hint at her feelings now and what she feels she should have recognized back then. These interjections serve to keep the reader alert to the undercurrents swirling through the narration and elevate the narrative tension quite effectively. Maynard has drawn Helen very convincingly as a woman who craves validation from others and is vulnerable in this need. Helen's own story-telling abilities don't protect her from falling under the influence of others and in fact make her inability to see people as they truly are sad. Helen is truly under the influence, first of alcohol and then, more importantly, of the power and allure of the Havillands. Used to having her life dictated to her by others, she fails to see the real place she occupies in the Havilland solar system and it will take a truly shocking incident to open her eyes. This said, she herself is not an entirely likable character, making terrible choices and allowing herself to be blinded the way she is. Swift and Ava are glittering, brittle characters whose kindnesses are undercut by something a little sinister, a little condescending, a little disturbing. And so the story is brilliantly set. The novel is both an indictment of the moneyed who wield their bank books as weapons and a look at the power of finally directing your own life and having the courage to rescue yourself. It is well written and suspenseful and the reader will fall under its spell just as truly as Helen fell under Swift and Ava's. ( )
  whitreidtan | Nov 22, 2016 |
Joyce 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. ( )
  bakersfieldbarbara | Sep 29, 2016 |
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This one is for David Schiff, a friend for life, whose integrity inspired me to create the quiet hero of this novel.
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It was late November, and for a week solid the rain hadn't let up.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0062257765, Paperback)

The New York Times bestselling author of Labor Day and After Her returns with a poignant story about the true meaning—and the true price—of friendship.

Alcohol cost Helen her marriage and custody of David, her seven-year-old son. Though she once had aspirations to be an art photographer, she makes ends meet taking pictures of grade-school children and working society parties for a catering company. Recovering from her addiction, she spends her evenings checking out profiles on an online dating site; weekends, she has awkward visits with her son, but he seems to be drifting away from her, fast.

When she meets Ava and Swift Havilland, the vulnerable Helen is instantly enchanted. Wealthy, connected philanthropists, they have their own charity devoted to the care and welfare of dogs. Their home is filled with glamorous friends, edgy art, and fabulous parties.

As Helen increasingly falls under the Havillands’ influence—running errands, doing random chores, cataloguing Ava’s art collection—Ava and Swift hire a good lawyer to help her regain custody of her son. But the debt Helen owes them is about to come due.

David witnesses an accident involving Swift, his grown son, Cooper, and the daughter of the Havillands’ Guatemalan housekeeper. With David’s future in the balance, Helen must choose between the truth and the friends who have given her everything.

(retrieved from Amazon Fri, 17 Jul 2015 18:19:58 -0400)

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