Joyce Maynard, the bestselling author of Labor Day, is back with a new novel, Under the Influence. A curious mixture of thriller and drama, Under the Influence offers a life lesson about mistakes which can cost us dearly, and how those who claim to be our friends may not have our best interest at heart.
Helen is a single mother who feels her world is falling apart and she can’t do anything to stop it. She is divorced and alone, her son taken from her as a result of a driving under the influence charge, due to her growing drinking problem, and placed in the custody of her ex-husband. Her career is non-existent. She barely gets by working as a waitress for a catering company and doing other meaningless jobs, hoping to save enough money to allow her to hire a lawyer and, hopefully, get her son back.
One night, catering at an event she meets Swift and Ava Havilland a rich, charming, philanthropic, dog-loving couple, who take immediate interest in Helen and seem interested in helping her out. Helen on her part, needs all the help she can get and is tired of spending her nights sad and alone perusing online dating sites. So she decides to take Ava and Swift up on their offer of work.
As Helen recovers from her alcohol addiction and works hard to have her estranged son returned to her, Ava and Swift provide a haven of comfort and seemingly unconditional friendship. When Helen meets Elliot, a man who falls in love with her after their first date, she thinks that she may be on the road to getting her life back and maybe even fall in love again.
However, Ava and Swift are dismissive of Elliot and clearly don’t approve of his gentle and quiet manner. Helen begins to question her relationship with Elliot and wonders if perhaps they are right in their judgment. By giving them a carte blanche to control her personal life, Helen proves to be as malleable and easy to train as one of the Havilland’s treasured dogs.
Wonderfully written, Maynard cleverly presents a complex character worthy of sympathy due to her many ups and downs. At the same time, Maynard makes her less likeable when Helen proves to be a weakling and a moron around the gravitational pull of Ava and Swift. She has no qualms in introducing her son Oliver to the Havillands and allowing the reckless and speed-driving Swift to become a cartoonish father figure to him. On the other hand, when Elliot suggests that Oliver should wear a life jacket when Ava and Swift invite them for a boat ride, everyone including Helen dismiss his concern as another show of his drab personality.
Helen finds herself unable and sometimes unwilling to stick up for Elliot and defend her relationship with him. It’s only when Oliver is placed in a precarious situation that involves Swift and his wild son that Helen is forced to see reality. Ava and Swift are not who they seem to be, and in her blind stupidity she may have already lost the friendship and love of those who truly cared for her.
Joyce Maynard’s Under the Influence is a realistic testament of true and false friendships. When our lives are so muddled and confused by personal tragedy, are we truly capable of telling them apart?