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Book Review: The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard

Book Review: The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard

The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard is a moving novel. This brilliant piece of young adult literature tackles heartbreak, change, family, and growing up after losing a loved one to the September 11 attacks.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
If you're looking for an engaging, emotional book for a young adult, look no further. The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard is just that and more. It is a book told primarily through the perspective of Wendy, a thirteen-year-old junior high student in Brooklyn in the year 2001. At the beginning of the school year, she is sitting in a classroom when her world is turned upside-down. Her teacher announces that a plane has hit the World Trade Center, where her mother works. Like so many others on that fateful day, Wendy's mother is never seen again. Through the rest of the book, we see the unraveling of her stepfather, Josh, younger brother, Louie, and Wendy's desperate attempt to escape from the tragic New York landscape. She accompanies her estranged father to California, where she makes all sorts of unexpected friends, from her father's cactus-growing girlfriend to a skateboarding boyfriend to a bookstore owner and his autistic son. Through Wendy's eyes, we see what it must have been like for so many young people after September 11, 2001, and Joyce Maynard's exquisite storytelling makes it difficult to look away.

Engaging Characters

Part of what makes The Usual Rules such a great book is its engaging characters. The characters Maynard created for this book are deeply flawed, just like real people, and that makes them easy to relate to. Wendy's biological father, for example, is at first presented as a wayward artist, unable to provide for his daughter and unwilling to compromise with Wendy's mother. He shows up when he feels like it and vanishes just as suddenly. However, when Wendy goes to live with her father after her mother's death, we find out that he has felt alienated by his wealthy parents for his entire life, and his vagabond ways are a result of his refusal to even try to meet their standards. In a truly realistic twist, we find that Wendy's father is deeply saddened by the sudden death of his mother - something Wendy herself can relate to. Even the character of Wendy is not the spotless heroine of most young adult novels. Wendy drops out of school in the middle of her first school day in California, unbeknownst to her father, and spends most of her time at a bookstore or riding her bike around the city. This is not the best thing she could do, and she knows it, but her adventures are necessary to her emotional healing, which many teenagers and adults alike can relate to.

Easy To Read

The Usual Rules is an exceptionally easy book to read. This doesn't mean that the book is simple; rather, it is so engaging and written in such an excellent style and voice that it is impossible to put down. Maynard has perfected the art of the cliffhanger. She will give little pieces of the plot and, just when you are engaged in that section, she will break and move on to something else, coming back to previous plot lines later in the novel. This makes even the most reluctant reader eager to continue through the end of the novel, if only to find out what happens to all the characters and to tie up loose ends. The dialog between the characters and Wendy's internal thoughts are also exceptionally engaging and realistic.

Life Lessons

Most young adults who are between the ages of ten and fourteen now are too young to be able to remember the September 11 attacks. Even if they remember, or have been taught what happened, they probably only have very vague ideas and recollections of the event and what it meant for the United States and the world as a whole. The Usual Rules provides a very clear and true to life insight into what it was like growing up after those attacks. The novel uses the attacks as a backdrop to tackle issues such as how to deal with loss, how to handle family issues, and the importance of accepting people for who they are - all vitally important lessons for today's youth.

In short, pick up a copy of The Usual Rules today. You won't regret it!