It's a Tuesday morning in Brooklyn—a perfect September day. Wendy is heading to school, eager to make plans with her best friend, worried about how she looks, mad at her mother for not letting her visit her father in California, impatient with her little brother and with the almost too-loving concern of her jazz musician stepfather. She's out the door to catch the bus. An hour later comes the news: A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center—her mother's office building.
Through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Wendy, we gain entrance to the world rarely shown by those who documented the events of that one terrible day: a family's slow and terrible realization that Wendy's mother has died, and their struggle to go on with their lives in the face of such a crushing loss.
Absent for years, Wendy's real father shows up without warning. He takes her back with him to California, where she re-invents her life: Wendy now lives more or less on her own in a one-room apartment with a TV set and not much else. Wendy's new circle now includes her father's cactus-grower girlfriend, newly reconnected with the son she gave up for adoption twenty years before; a sad and tender bookstore owner who introduces her to the voice of Anne Frank and to his autistic son; and a homeless skateboarder, on a mission to find his long-lost brother.
Over the winter and spring that follow, Wendy moves between the alternately painful and reassuring memories of her mother and the revelations that come with growing to know her real father for the first time. Pulled between her old life in Brooklyn and a new one 3,000 miles away, our heroine is faced with a world where the usual rules no longer apply but eventually discovers a strength and capacity for compassion and survival that she never knew she possessed.
At the core of the story is Wendy's deep connection with her little brother, back in New York, who is grieving the loss of their mother without her. This is a story about the ties of siblings, about children who lose their parents, parents who lose their children, and the unexpected ways they sometimes find one another again. Set against the backdrop of global and personal tragedy, and written in a style alternately wry and heartbreaking, The Usual Rules is an unexpectedly hopeful story of healing and forgiveness that will offer readers, young and old alike, a picture of how, out of the rubble, a family rebuilds its life.
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Wendy, the 13-year-old heroine of Joyce Maynard's The Usual Rules, lives in a happy, haphazard Brooklyn household with her dancer/secretary mom, her jazz musician stepfather, and her eccentric little brother. Life for Wendy is fraught with the usual teen angst until September 11, when her mom heads off to work at the World Trade Center and never comes home. Wendy struggles through the days with stepfather Josh and brother Louis until on Halloween night her estranged biological father shows up and offers to take her home with him to California. On the West Coast, Wendy devises her own healing process of skipping school, hanging around with an unwed teen mom, and spending hours loafing at a bookstore. Maynard is very good on Wendy's grief. She tries on one of her mother's dresses and realizes with a shock it still holds her mom's perfume. She's undone for a moment, then reaches "for the bottle of aftershave on Josh's bureau and patted some on her neck and arms. If you were going to smell like one of your parents, it was better to smell like the one who wasn't dead." She's equally convincing when she writes about Wendy's developing relationship with her loner dad and her growing understanding that Josh and Louis are now her real family. This graceful book about loss and adolescence is marred only by its use of September 11 as its milieu. Maynard sketches in some scenes at Ground Zero and some firefighter characters, but in the main the book is really about a girl and her dead mother. Using the Trade Center tragedy as a jumping-off point doesn't deepen the story; in fact, it seems a bit opportunistic. Maynard should have trusted the elegant, compassionate material at the heart of her book. --Claire DedererAbout the Author:
Joyce Maynard has been a journalist and fiction writer for many years. Her books include the novel To Die For and the memoir At Home in the World. She lives in Mill Valley, California.
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