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Maynard's story set in California is told by Helen. She is a divorced mother of a young boy. She lost custody of her son because of an incident involving her driving drunk. Her life is diminished and she is miserable. Her life changes when she makes a new friend, Ava, an older woman married to Swift. Ava is in a wheelchair but she is amazingly active and resourceful. The two of them seem to have an amazing marriage, full of sex, love, and mutual admiration. Swift is very playful and loves excitement, especially driving fast cars and boats. The couple live their life lavishly, throwing big parties and eating well. So they have plenty of resources to bestow on Helen, who lives in a small and modest apartment and owes many thousands to her divorce lawyer. So their friendship is very uneven, with Helen always in the debt of Ava and Swift. The central question of the book is whether the friendship is a good one. Do Helen and Ava really understand each other, and care for each other in a genuine way. They do a lot to help Helen, especially when her son starts spending time with them. Is Helen using them, and are they using Helen? When Helen finally starts dating a sincere but rather dull accountant, Ava and Swift are condescending and disapproving. Helen is torn about her loyalties and questions her own judgment of others. The fact that she has had problems with alcohol in the past and now she regularly attends AA meetings suggests that her own judgment isn't that reliable, and she can't trust herself. She finds her ideas changing depending on who she is with, and she is often regretting her past actions. Her main priority is her son, but it turns out that she does not always make the wisest choices concerning him; even her judgment as a mother is suspect. But Helen's heart is in the right place and so even though she is sometimes tiresome as a narrator, the reader is able to stick with her.
Even though a central theme of Under the Influence is living life in sobriety after previously depending on alcohol, there is very little description of life when drunk or the recovery process. Indeed, it seems that the title is a play on the idea of influence, because it is just as much about the influence of money and power as it is about alcohol. Ultimately, Maynard seems to be giving a morality tale about the twisted lives of the rich who pretend to care about the world but really only care about themselves. Ava and Swift seem like they are bravely outspoken about how to live life well, making choices that more cautious people don't dare to make. In the end, however, Maynard comes down firmly in favor of a conventional life, giving the message that those who embrace modesty and monogamy are the only ones who know what integrity and honesty are. Money, sex and alcohol are all corrupting, even though they are superficially attractive. Maynard starts the story telling the reader that the friendship between Helen and Ava ends, so the main mystery is what causes the break. She also telegraphs some of the main dramatic points, which takes away nearly all the surprise. It does remain a question whether Helen's romantic life will flourish, and whether her relationship with son will survive and improve, or whether she faces a lonely and sad future. The plot is busy and dramatic enough to keep the reader interested. The real strength of the book though is in its exploration of morality and what counts as a good life. Even if the plot lacks subtlety, it is intriguing as an exploration of different ways of living life. It could potentially be a good book to use in a class on ethics to spur discussion of character and friendship.
© 2016 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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