Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review: Under the Influence

Summary: The New York Times bestselling author of Labor Day and After Her returns with a poignant story about the true meaning—and the true price—of friendship. 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. -- William Morrow

It's been a few years now since I first discovered Joyce Maynard. She is a beautiful storyteller and I love how she creates such vivid and memorable characters. Needless to say, I was very excited when I received a copy of her latest novel UNDER THE INFLUENCE. This novel is classic Maynard -- it has a compelling story with a great deal to think about!

UNDER THE INFLUENCE tells the story of Helen, a woman who is trying to get her life back on track. A recovering alcoholic, Helen has already destroyed her marriage and she's even lost custody of her seven year old son Ollie. She no longer can follow her dreams of being an art photographer. Instead she takes school pictures and works part-time for a caterer. Helen is very lonely and her relationship with her son is quickly disintegrating.

And then Ava and Swift Havilland enter the picture... and they are exactly what Helen needs (or thinks she needs!) They are extremely wealthy -- Ava is a major contributor to charities and she's even created her own charity which supports rescue dogs. Helen immediately is drawn to these two and she loves spending a great deal of time with them.

Helen feels like she is finally finding her way. She even hits it off with a nice accountant named Elliott. Of course, Elliott isn't exciting enough for Ava and Swift; and they aren't exactly encouraging of the relationship. That goes both ways, though. Elliott sees through them and isn't a fan of Helen's relationship with them either!

When Helen allows Ollie to spend the day with Swift, Ollie ends up seeing a horrifying accident. Swift's true nature is revealed to Helen and she is forced to decide what's more important to her -- her friendship with Ava and Swift or protecting her son!

I loved UNDER THE INFLUENCE! It was a terrific story with fascinating characters, and I loved how it delved into some complex questions about truth, friendship, and finding one's self. I think I read the book in a little over a day, and that's really saying something considering how crazy my life has been over the past few weeks!

What stood out most for me about UNDER THE INFLUENCE were the characters. I found them all to be so interesting... namely Helen. I honestly have to say that for much of the novel, I was annoyed by how impressed she was with Ava and Swift. That's not to say I didn't understand the reasons why she behaved like she did. I just wanted her to be less insecure and trust her instincts a little more. So in a way, I guess you could say that I was rooting for her!

As far as Ava and Swift go, I couldn't stand them. Like Elliott, I immediately saw through them... only I didn't realize just how awful they were! And that brings me to Elliott -- I adored him. He was a great guy and exactly what Helen needed. I had high hopes for his relationship with Helen, but I seriously didn't think she had the ability to put him ahead of her friendship with the Havillands.

I also really appreciated some of the themes of this novel. Friendship was a huge theme, and I thought the author did a wonderful job of showing both the good and bad aspects of friendship. Helen was forced to decide between her relationship with the Havillands, the people that she truly credited with saving her, and the truth about the accident. It might not sound that difficult, but given Helen's weaknesses, it was huge for her. She honestly felt as if she owed them -- believe it or not!

I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that UNDER THE INFLUENCE would make a great book club selection. I think all of Ms. Maynard's novel are! There is a reading guide with fourteen thought-provoking questions that will help stimulate discussion. Some of the themes you might want to discuss include friendship, addiction, parent/child relationships, truth, appearances, and second chances. It would also be interesting to discuss the Havillands and the way they deal with not only Helen but they way they deal with each other and others.

Overall, I loved UNDER THE INFLUENCE! Highly recommended to fans of women's fiction!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


bermudaonion said...

I loved this book too - even the title is terrific. I hope to talk my book club into reading/discussing this book.

Mary (Bookfan) said...

Loved your review. It's on my wish list!