Under the Influence, by author Joyce Maynard, is a book about recovery. Following an unpleasant divorce, Helen is lonely and vulnerable. To compensate for her sadness, she takes to drinking a glass or two, and then three, and then a whole bottle of wine each night after putting her 7-year-old son Ollie to bed. Circumstances requiring her to drive her son to the hospital after such a night lead to her getting a DUI, and eventually to her losing custody to her ex-husband and his new wife. Helen is devastated.
One night, while working for a caterer at a party, Helen, now sober, meets Swift and Ava Havilland, a charismatic couple who take Helen under their wing. She is swept up in their high-energy and exciting lifestyle and becomes creepily devoted to them. So does her son Ollie.
Readers learn in the first chapter that the relationship is not going to be a good one and will not end well. That increases the tension in this compulsively readable novel. Maynard is about as good a storyteller as it gets.
The Havillands frankly gave me the creeps. I think that is the author’s intent, which is why we learn from the get-go that the relationship is doomed. But we have all met people who are so interesting and so much fun that even if we know it isn’t good for us, we love being with them. Swift and Ava made Helen feel loved.
I enjoyed watching the character grow throughout the book. She meets a very good man, and the author does a great job of seeing how Elliott helps Helen to recover. The story’s climax is disturbing and predictable all at the same time.
The end, while somewhat mysterious, is satisfying.
When I grow up, I want to write as well as Joyce Maynard.