Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Under the Influence.
What makes for a fulfilling life? Is it devotion to a job, place, family, lover, or best friend? What happens when those things become unglued? These are questions posited by Joyce Maynard as her central character, Helen, forges an unlikely friendship with wealthy benefactors Ava and Swift Havilland. Helen has reached crossroads after the humiliation of a DUI and losing custody of Ollie, her young son. As the novel opens, Helen has been reflecting on her life with the Havillands in a friendship that has lost much of its appeal. We aren’t quite sure why Helen is no longer in touch with the couple, as nearly everything that she thinks or feels has been directly inspired by glamorous Ava.
Helen has had to face hard reality of a betrayal which--second only to losing custody of Ollie--has become the defining act of her life: “ Losing Ava’s friendship had left me unable to remember who I might be anymore without her.” Helen recounts the old days at the Havillands’ mansion on Folger Lane and the sense that she had landed at long last in a place “that felt like home.” She met them at a gallery opening in San Francisco where she was working as a caterer, moonlighting to make a little extra cash. Vulnerable Helen is seduced by compact, wild Swift, who to gives off “a smell of sex and danger.” Swift obviously notices Helen, but the person whose attention and interest really matters the most is Ava.
Maynard lays out an interesting scenario. From the beginning, there’s something not quite right about the Havillands or about the reasons why Helen is drawn to Ava and Swift and to a glamorous life surrounded by beautiful and expensive possessions. Helen is entranced by a house that emanates such life, warmth, and joyful abandon. Ava is a great listener, and she offers a picture of a future for Helen filled with promise. From Ava’s first assignment--photographing her extensive art collection, the several roomfuls of drawings and paintings and sculptural pieces that she has acquired over the years--Helen is seduced then blindsided.
At first uncritical, Helen’s new accountant boyfriend Elliot puts her in conflict with the Havillands. Elliot is loyal to Helen and to Ollie time and again, yet Helen’s awareness of Elliot’s inherent plainness becomes a sharp note of perplexity in her life. Blinded by Ava and Swift’s money, Helen becomes convinced that aligning herself with Elliot puts her in direct opposition to everything her friends represent. Swift and Ava have made her new life possible, including Ollie’s willingness to finally to open his heart to her again: “Something is wrong with me for being so satisfied with someone so seemingly ordinary as Elliot. As if he had made the choice to have a smaller lesser life.”
Ava may appear to be physically ravaged in her wheelchair, but her disability doesn’t stop her from living a full, active life. She’s enamored emotionally and sexually with her husband: “It’s like the two of us make up one person now. If one dies so does the other.” That statement doesn’t quite ring with the authenticity she wants it to. Still, Swift’s big sixtieth birthday surprise party grows closer, Ava enlists Helen to produce a book of photos of his life. Swift is a larger-than-life personality and a seductive lure for impressionable young Ollie, who takes to Swift with the passion of a pirate and the promise of swimming lessons.
As the novel builds towards the party and the shocking denouement on the waters of Lake Tahoe, Maynard skillfully moves between the perspectives of her main characters: Helen, who tries to keep her life with Elliot separate, even when it seems that (as far as Ava and Swift are concerned) Elliot is out-of-sight, out-of-mind; Swift, who reveals a whole new side to Ollie that Helen has not experienced before, a kind of swagger and bravado; and Ava, who skillfully hides her consuming bitterness. While Helen’s reflections add weight to the novel’s sense of melancholy, the irresponsible actions of the Havillands’ twenty-something son, Cooper, add the thrill of danger, as well as Elliot’s constant irritation that Helen can’t accept him for who he is.
The moneyed machinations of Ava and Swift are a reminder that life is never as honest or as predictable as we would like. Helen’s lesson is the realization of something she has failed to detect before: the essence of a man with whom she has spent many hours over the course of many months, and who finally reveals the truth about his character.