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Count the Ways

by Joyce Maynard

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21530127,539 (4.13)5
In her most ambitious novel to date, New York Times bestselling author Joyce Maynard returns to the themes that are the hallmarks of her most acclaimed work in a mesmerizing story of a family--from the hopeful early days of young marriage to parenthood, divorce, and the costly aftermath that ripples through all their lives Eleanor and Cam meet at a crafts fair in Vermont in the early 1970s. She's an artist and writer, he makes wooden bowls. Within four years they are parents to three children, two daughters and a red-headed son who fills his pockets with rocks, plays the violin and talks to God. To Eleanor, their New Hampshire farm provides everything she always wanted--summer nights watching Cam's softball games, snow days by the fire and the annual tradition of making paper boats and cork people to launch in the brook every spring. If Eleanor and Cam don't make love as often as they used to, they have something that matters more. Their family. Then comes a terrible accident, caused by Cam's negligence. Unable to forgive him, Eleanor is consumed by bitterness, losing herself in her life as a mother, while Cam finds solace with a new young partner.  Over the decades that follow, the five members of this fractured family make surprising discoveries and decisions that occasionally bring them together, and often tear them apart. Tracing the course of their lives--through the gender transition of one child and another's choice to completely break with her mother--Joyce Maynard captures a family forced to confront essential, painful truths of its past, and find redemption in its darkest hours. A story of holding on and learning to let go, Count the Ways is an achingly beautiful, poignant, and deeply compassionate novel of home, parenthood, love, and forgiveness.… (more)
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When Eleanor was just a teenager, her parents, always kind of distant with her, were killed in an automobile accident. Though they were not close, her life was upended. While living at the home of an acquaintance/friend, Patty, so she could finish school, Patty’s brother Mathew, who only cared about money and drink according to Patty, took advantage of Eleanor, a 16-year-old who was confused and weak at the time. She dreamed of revenge against him, and years later, when he remade himself into a right-wing patriotic politician against abortion, transgenders, and the LGBTQ+ world, she had her opportunity. She knew him when he tried, among other things, to get out of Vietnam and took a girl for an abortion. She punished him with a “me too” moment. Did this prove no good deed of the family went unpunished? Was it vengeance or justice?
She eventually went off on her own but left college after a couple of years. She was an artist and a creator of stories. When her first submissions were published, one about an orphan named Bodie, she left her education behind and bought a farm in a quiet place where she could work on her drawing and find peace. That home became her center of gravity. She loved the property. She believed she would live and die there. She bought a dog and named him Charlie. He was chasing a deer and was shot by a hunter. A policeman with a brusque demeanor brought his body home to her.
Then Eleanor met the handsome, red-headed Cameron. He made beautiful wooden bowls and read poetry to her, specifically, Browning's “How do I love thee”, she married and settled down with him. He seemed like a warm, gentle giant of a man. Soon they had a family. Eleanor believed she had found nirvana. Her three children, Alison, Ursula and Toby were her life. Ursula was the peacemaker with hidden anger, Alison was a girl who decided at age 8, that she wanted to be called Al and felt more masculine. Web-footed Toby was the light of everyone’s life with his deep voice and serious remarks that often sounded like they should have come from someone far older.
Eleanor spent her days creating cartoons and wonderful pastimes for the children. They created cork people, boats they sailed in their pond, and a time capsule they buried under their beautiful ash tree. They ice skated in the winter and went to Cam’s baseball games in the spring where she met her first close friend, Darla. Darla was in an abusive marriage. When her husband Bobby got hold of a gun, life did not come to a good end.
Eleanor began to create a cartoon that was soon syndicated. It was about her family. Using her son Toby as the main character of the cartoon called Family Tree, to honor their ash tree, the very tree that later caused a disaster, she kept them fed. Cam continued to carve his beautiful bowls, but there was no mad rush to buy them. She was the major breadwinner and was occasionally resentful. Cam was not ambitious. He was a man who loved his life and his environment. He planted a garden and worked in his wood shop. On the surface, all of the characters’ lives were wonderfully simple. Everyone was down to earth, passionate and as happy as they could be. Eleanor had accomplished her dream and was truly content.
Then, there was an accident that changed all of their lives. Eleanor could no longer create her syndicated cartoon based on Toby, her precocious toddler. He was now brain injured. Eleanor’s temper often showed itself. She referred to it as “crazyland”. and would say things she would be sorry for later. In the past, life had been so good. She had created activities for the children, made home cooked meals and loved her husband. They were, for all the world to see, a very happy family, but now they grew apart.
Although he was still a good father, Cam and Eleanor no longer had a robust and passionate relationship. Eleanor blamed him for Toby’s accident and found it hard to forgive him. As the only breadwinner, since Cam now spent all of his time trying to help Toby improve with Yoga exercises, in order to make ends meet, Eleanor began writing and illustrating greeting cards as she had done before she became successful. She was content to seethe in her anger and live together, but Cam was not content. Then she discovered that he was cheating on her. He was unrepentant. They were divorced. Neither of them ever told the children who wanted the divorce. They vowed not to make the children blame either one of them.
Eleanor moved to Boston and left the children in the house with their father to keep their lives stable. Therefore, she was the one they ultimately blamed. Soon, she was finding solace in an affair with a younger man who had always “loved” her, Timmy Puliot. He catered to her, and with him she found some peace. Years before, as a small child, he had told her of his father’s suicide. She had understood, since both of her parents had died.
Coco was the 16-year-old teenager who was the babysitter. She kept the children’s lives and small world whole and intact. When Eleanor moved away she filled the gap. The kids had no idea about their father's other relationship. Did Cam ever tell them of his prior affair with Coco? Did the children ever understand the simple fact that Eleanor had moved to protect them? Time passed. Many tragedies unfolded.
Coco and Cam had children, one of whom, Elijah, asked to live with Eleanor for a while. As a teenager, he had quit school to pursue his fortune with his band that was growing in popularity. Eventually, he went to Europe to tour. Soon, however, there was another divorce and then a terrible accident involving a drunk truck driver, and Timmy and Coco who were riding together on his motorcycle. Why was Coco with Eleanor’s Timmy? How did Elijah handle this this traumatic event?
Moving on, when Al went off to school, she said she would not be returning. After years, however, Eleanor received a wedding invitation and returned to the home at the farm for the wedding. The wedding service, in both English and Spanish, had an assortment of guests who were described by the author. On that day, another truly unexpected tragedy unfolded during a thunderstorm. Oddly, everyone was able to ignore the devastation as they proceeded to enjoy the wedding food and festivities. The ash tree and the house were no longer. Did it foreshadow a different future for all of them? Could they finally let go of the past?
Eleanor noticed that Cam had grown older and was not well. She felt true affection and compassion for him and was finally ready to forgive him, but could she? Could he relate to her? How would they all go forward? All their lives were in the throes of change.
The book is about shame, blame, guilt, irresponsibility, immaturity, anger management, devotion, infidelity, forgiveness and loyalty, motherhood and the environment and every other social issue on G-d’s earth. There are so many characters and themes, but they all merge together well and are well developed. The story is placed in the present and the past, going from things like the Vietnam war to baseball’s Carl Yastrzremski, to Princess Di’s death to John Lennon’s assassination, to the Challenger explosion. When I read the final word of the novel, I thought that the author had inserted every progressive theme possible into this book, but I enjoyed the novel, even when at times it felt like some of the scenes were contrived to subtly present a political position.
The timeline and the thread of the story were occasionally confused, but the story kept moving forward, even as it went backward. Sometimes it even felt repetitive. However, the once perfect family is exposed perfectly with its many dysfunctions that all families are heir to. Tragedy after tragedy occurs. In the end, could the destruction of property lead to the construction of a new path forward? I expect the sequel to this book will explain all the misunderstandings and unanswered questions that were raised by this one. ( )
  thewanderingjew | May 4, 2024 |
Skimmed for book club. Even skimming it, it felt long. This was boring, depressing and full of 'issues' for book clubs to discuss. I disliked it and everyone in it very much. ( )
  pgchuis | Nov 14, 2023 |
The anatomy of a marriage and the aftermath when divorce occurs, which spans several decades. I thought it was realistic, but both heart-breaking and infuriating at the same time. I understand the author has written a sequel which will be coming out in 2024 - I'll be anxious to read it. Joyce Maynard is an author I have recently discovered, and I'm enjoying her books very much. ( )
  flourgirl49 | Oct 1, 2023 |
While some events in this novel are extreme, it is very realistic and full of feelings. ( )
  bookwyrmm | Jun 2, 2023 |
I received a complimentary digital copy of this book from the publisher and Library Thing. This review is my voluntary and unbiased opinion.
I actually listened to the audiobook while reading this ARC. There were some chapters which did not make it into the final product. I don’t believe they impacted this long complex story about family and acceptance.
Eleanor raised her three children, Alison, Ursula and Toby in a modest and traditional family. Their father Cam started an annual tradition for the family to create "cork people" which they named before setting them off in the river.
Fast forward and Eleanor's children are grown with children of their own. The years have been filled with drama and bitter words. The idyllic life of which Eleanor had dreamed slowly disintegrates after tragedy befalls the family. Over the years, the kids go in their own very different direction after their parent's divorce. The story is complex with colorful characters who can draw mixed emotions given the themes of gender identity, family values, and forgiveness.
The cork people are symbolic of most families, as not everyone who floats in the water will make in down the river. Life is filled with many challenges which usually catch you off guard. ( )
  marquis784 | Jan 18, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
Eleanor grew up with alcoholic parents in an unhappy home. Eleanor and Cam met in Vermont in the 1970’s they fall in love get married and have three children. Eleanor grew up to be an artist and children’s book author she was the money-maker and her husband Cam made wooden bowls for craft fairs. Eleanor and Cam live on a farm in New Hampshire then tragedy strikes and Eleanor’s marriage unravels. This beautifully written story of heartbreak and survival was a great read.
 
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Epigraph
I'm sorry.
I love you.
Thank you.
Please forgive me.

        ---Ho'oponopono prayer, phrases spoken in any order, for reconciliation and forgiveness
And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.
             
              --Jane Kenyon, "Happiness"
How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

            --Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43
Dedication
For A., and W., who continue to instruct me well in the occasional heartbreak and lifelong joy of being a mother.
And for C. and S. The next generation.
First words
Toby was just a baby---Alison four years old, Ursula not yet three---the first time they launched the cork people.
Quotations
How does it happen that a person with whom you have shared your most intimate moments---greatest love, greatest pain, joy, also grief---can become a stranger?
Until that night she had not known he was capable of so much coldness or, call it what it was, so much quiet rage. Maybe that's what happened when someone who had once been in love with you wasn't anymore.
How could it be that a person could be both the source of your greatest sorrow and the source of your only comfort, all at once? That afternoon he was both.
Maybe the same thing that made him so enviably carefree also resulted in his maddening obliviousness. Life just didn't seem so earthshakingly serious to Cam...Eleanor remembered everything and never let it go.
Eleanor had learned this over the years: children of divorced parents were like citizens of two hostile countries, observing the laws and customs of each, depending on where they were at the moment. Shedding the language and culture when they entered the other, doing the same when they crossed back. Having to keep their story straight, depending on where they were. Their one source of continuity with each other.
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In her most ambitious novel to date, New York Times bestselling author Joyce Maynard returns to the themes that are the hallmarks of her most acclaimed work in a mesmerizing story of a family--from the hopeful early days of young marriage to parenthood, divorce, and the costly aftermath that ripples through all their lives Eleanor and Cam meet at a crafts fair in Vermont in the early 1970s. She's an artist and writer, he makes wooden bowls. Within four years they are parents to three children, two daughters and a red-headed son who fills his pockets with rocks, plays the violin and talks to God. To Eleanor, their New Hampshire farm provides everything she always wanted--summer nights watching Cam's softball games, snow days by the fire and the annual tradition of making paper boats and cork people to launch in the brook every spring. If Eleanor and Cam don't make love as often as they used to, they have something that matters more. Their family. Then comes a terrible accident, caused by Cam's negligence. Unable to forgive him, Eleanor is consumed by bitterness, losing herself in her life as a mother, while Cam finds solace with a new young partner.  Over the decades that follow, the five members of this fractured family make surprising discoveries and decisions that occasionally bring them together, and often tear them apart. Tracing the course of their lives--through the gender transition of one child and another's choice to completely break with her mother--Joyce Maynard captures a family forced to confront essential, painful truths of its past, and find redemption in its darkest hours. A story of holding on and learning to let go, Count the Ways is an achingly beautiful, poignant, and deeply compassionate novel of home, parenthood, love, and forgiveness.

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