COUNT THE WAYS
By Joyce Maynard
LORNA MOTT COMES HOME
By Diane Johnson
Reading a family novel offers a tried-and-true method of dead reckoning with the family we didn’t choose — a means of measuring our own trajectory beside the quandaries of others navigating family dramas.
This summer brings two new domestic sagas by veteran novelists: “Count the Ways” from Joyce Maynard and Diane Johnson’s “Lorna Mott Comes Home.” Set in different centuries, some 30 or 40 years apart, both novels cut across moments of national and personal upheaval to examine the complex web of family against the backdrop of history.
Maynard’s novel, set in the 1970s and 1980s, toggles back and forth between past and present. Her story plays out against the history that most immediately affected private lives — identity awakenings, AIDS, violence against women, marital betrayal, the space age, the dawning of the computer age. Jump ahead a bit to the Great Recession of 2008 for the historic backdrop of “Lorna Mott Comes Home.” America in this period is a very a different one from Maynard’s — more high-flying, more accepting, greedier, less idealistic. But for all the changes, families are still doing their family-thing as they have for millenniums — falling in and out of love, getting into trouble, getting out of trouble, having babies, loving then hating then loving some more. For the two families in these novels — both white, both comfortably situated, separated by time — we see, despite the unique and lively differences in setting and detail, how everything and nothing has changed for this subset of the American family.
Maynard’s “Count the Ways” is the story of Eleanor, a children’s book writer, mother of three, ex-wife of Cam. The novel opens with our protagonist’s return to the farm she once lived on as mother and wife, before life tore the family apart. The occasion for the return is the wedding of Al, Eleanor’s firstborn, who is a transgender man. As the wedding day unfolds, the past occupies most of the novel’s space — describing how Eleanor grew up, married, divorced and found her way through her parents’ early death, a rape, her marriage to Cam, her life in the country, her young son’s tragic accident, her divorce, her affairs, her husband’s affairs, illness, family rifts, her friendships, her thriving career.