Joyce Maynard has a way of writing about a fluky event, crazy coincidence, or lurid crime scenario and making the plot believable — almost inevitable — given the characters she creates. (Some critics disagree with me on this.)
Labor Day — An escaped murder convict is given shelter by a single mother and her young son.
To Die For — A wife hires a contract killer on her husband.
The Good Daughters — Families of two girls born in the same small hospital a few hours apart are strangely connected.
Her taste for the sensational plot premise and toxic family secrets, her open embrace of publicity, her willingness to admit that she’ll write (gasp!) for money, the general tendency of critics to dismiss books about families that are written by women, and (probably more than anything) her daring to write about her relationship a long time ago to creepy literary darling J.D. Salinger — all tend to make her work harshly criticized or, at best, reviewed as simplistic women’s fiction. (Which I guess the publisher doesn’t mind: a blurb from Elizabeth Berg is featured prominently on the cover of The Good Daughters.) But Joyce Maynard deserves to break out and gain a wider readership.
The Good Daughters is a novel that spans five decades of two women’s lives. Ruth and Dana were “hurricane babies” and “birthday sisters” — born on the same day in the same hospital, just about nine months to the day after a hurricane blew through their small New Hampshire town. Though Dana’s flighty family moves from place to place and Ruth’s is firmly rooted in a family farm that goes back generations, both girls grow up feeling like outsiders in their families (which are both dysfunctional in different ways), wondering what is wrong with them.
Readers of The Good Daughters figure out well before the characters do what happened in the past to screw up so many lives so royally, without knowing exactly how or why until the end. Some reviews complain about this. But the author is speculating on “what would happen if…” She’s not building up to a surprise plot twist, à la Jodi Picoult. The Good Daughters explores the human capacity for denial; the natural, human desire to belong and be loved; and the nature vs. nurture debate by slowly revealing how Ruth and Dana and their families develop and intertwine over time.