Monday, January 17, 2011

The Good Daughters, by Joyce Maynard

The messages of Joyce Maynard's latest novel seem to be threefold: (1) genetics are everything, (2) women in the 1950s did what their husbands and/or lovers told them to--even when it involved raising the wrong child, and (3) if we didn't know they were our brothers, our brothers would be our soul mates. Unfortunately, all three are a little hard to take (sorry to my three bros, but as to number 3--ugh!).

The book is about two families--the farming Planks, who have five daughters, and the nomadic Dickersons, who have a son and a daughter. Dana Dickerson and Ruth Plank were born on the same day, and for many years that fact seems to provide a weird link between two families that otherwise have nothing in common. Both girls, who narrate the book in alternating chapters (their voices unfortunately don't sound very different), feel out of place in their families. Short, stocky Dana is uninterested in art or the succession of Barbies that her tall, slender artist mother gets her; instead, she loves to talk to Mr. Plank about plant propagation. Tall, slender Ruth loves to draw but feels no closeness with her short, stocky mother and sisters. Is it a little obvious what the "twist" is going to be?

Dana grows up to be a happy lesbian farmer (although her partner fails to get tenure in the 1980s when she is outed). Meanwhile Ruth has an ill-fated relationship with Dana's brother Ray, which her mother breaks up when Ruth reveals she is pregnant; she then marries a man for whom she feels the most tepid of emotions. By the end of the book, Dana has been widowed and Ruth is divorced; together, they buy the other Plank sisters out and run the family farm together, surviving "against all odds."

I'm sure Maynard was going for a deeply meaningful exploration of family issues, but the book is predictable and simplistic. Not recommended.

Favorite passage:
I loved manure . . . A lot of people don't appreciate good manure, no doubt. Sometimes, on walks, if we were going through a pasture where cattle grazed, I'd bend over and pick up a clod of the stuff an work it over in my hand, scattering the bits as I went. I liked to think about all the things that went into this particular piece of manure: grass, grain, seeds of other plants, chewed up and passed out through the cow's intestine, to start the process going all over again. When you think about this, it's a beautiful thing . . .

(Oh, please--I grew up on a farm and I've never heard anyone wax poetic about manure. It is what it is.)

No comments:

Post a Comment