Under the Influence is novel #9 for Joyce, plus 4 non-fiction books. I was afraid that this would be another one of those literary fiction novels that is too literary, well-written, confusing for a troglodyte like me. But I'm happy to say that I WAS WRONG. I really liked this. It is, in fact, well-written, but totally readable. She writes in such a way that you don't feel like you're in a lecture hall. Or being schooled on how to write so that nobody can understand what you're saying. As we've recently seen in John Hart, and, certainly, Pat Conroy, it's okay to write in a literary way and still make the story easy-flowing and readable.
Here's the Goodreads recap:
Drinking cost Helen her marriage and custody of her seven-year-old son, Ollie. Once an aspiring art photographer, she now makes ends meet taking portraits of school children and working for a caterer. Recovering from her addiction, she spends lonely evenings checking out profiles on an online dating site. Weekend visits with her son are awkward. He’s 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 rescuing dogs. Their home is filled with fabulous friends, edgy art, and dazzling parties.
Then Helen meets Elliott, a kind, quiet accountant who offers loyalty and love with none of her newfound friends’ fireworks. To Swift and Ava, he’s boring. But even worse than that, he’s unimpressed by them.
As Helen increasingly falls under the Havillands’ influence—running errands, doing random chores, questioning her relationship with Elliott—Ava and Swift hold out the most seductive gift: their influence and help to regain custody of her son. But the debt Helen owes them is about to come due.
Ollie witnesses an accident involving Swift, his grown son, and the daughter of the Havillands’ housekeeper. With her young son’s future in the balance, Helen must choose between the truth and the friends who have given her everything.
You know how I like writing that's very visual. Here are some examples of how well Joyce does this:
1. "Ollie reached for the box, but with about as much enthusiasm as if it contained medicine or socks."
2. "She laughed. A long, soft trill, like water over rocks."
3. "...his face concealed behind the hood of his jacket like someone in the witness protection program.
4. "...and a long sigh came out of me, like the feeling when you finally get to take off tight shoes or unzip your dress, the feeling of pulling into your own driveway after a long time on the road."
Nice, huh? But this book also has some fun personal connections for me. I know you can't wait to hear those, right? Right?
1. "...my first impulse was to cry out as a person would who'd spotted a long-lost friend. For a second there, this great wave of pure, uncomplicated happiness started to wash over me." This actually happened to me. I saw an old buddy who I wasn't friends with at the time but was so excited to see before I remembered. I really got that.
2. Helen describes Swift's interests, including entertaining Reiki practitioners. As I'm sure I've told you before, my wife, Joni, is a Reiki master. You don't often see references to Reiki in a novel. Very cool.
3. Helen also mentions a Jacuzzi in Swift's and Ava's house. Have I told you in prior posts that my mom's sister married into THE Jacuzzi family? This will not come as a surprise to you, but that family was really rich.
4. There is a discussion about a book of Shel Silverstein poems. I actually read these poems to my kids. But my 1st purchase of a children's book, about 2 years before my oldest was born (he's 39 now!), was The Giving Tree, by Silverstein. I will always have a soft spot for his books.
5. Helen made up a story about her father being sent to a place in South America to work in a "...climate-controlled pod in the desert..." In fact, when my son went to the University of Arizona in Tucson, we actually stopped in the desert between Phoenix and Tucson at the Biosphere 2. This was a self-contained experiment. I think it's still there.
6. Helen describes her son, Ollie, in the bathtub, with his toys and imaginative play. Well, guess what? My son, Josh, has written a children's book, called Little Boy Soup, that exactly addresses little boys in the bathtub with toys and imaginative play. By the way, Josh's book hits bookstores this coming June.
But enough about me. Under the Influence is a great combo of good writing, tension, unease, and emotional connections. Read it.