Books

After losing her husband, author Joyce Maynard discovers new strength in ‘The Best of Us’

Author Joyce Maynard, who found “true love” at age 59, and Jim Barringer married on a New Hampshire hillside. She details their intense romance and his untimely death in her new memoir, “The Best of Us.”
Author Joyce Maynard, who found “true love” at age 59, and Jim Barringer married on a New Hampshire hillside. She details their intense romance and his untimely death in her new memoir, “The Best of Us.”

On an online dating site, best-selling author and essayist Joyce Maynard at long last found her dashing prince. They were both long divorced and wary of senior romance, even of the storybook kind. But together, they enjoyed far-flung adventures and found their own personal paradise.

At age 59, Maynard – a woman who for decades expressed emotions for millions of female readers – felt she finally knew true everlasting love.

As suddenly as she found her perfect partner in lawyer Jim Barringer, he was gone. Cancer brutally ended his life and their brief marriage. Crushed by fate, Maynard finally regrouped and found the will to confront widowhood – and get back to writing.

“I like to tell a story that makes you cry – in a good way,” Maynard said by phone from her Lafayette home. “I’m not from the school that crying is a bad thing. Never crying is a hard way to live.”

Tears come with the package in “The Best of Us” (Bloomsbury, 440 pages, $27), Maynard’s new memoir released last month. Maynard will be the guest of the Sacramento Bee Book Club on Thursday, Nov. 2.

“It’s a love story, about having a partner,” she said of the new book. “Before this, I didn’t realize what marriage really is. I got a lot of real joy from telling my story. My philosophy: Tell the story and don’t tell people what to make of it.”

The reaction to Maynard’s new memoir has been strong. Kirkus Reviews called it “a moving tribute to the evergreen lessons of the heart.”

“She beautifully renders the joy of falling in love later in life and the pain of watching her husband die of pancreatic cancer,” wrote Publishers Weekly. “Maynard’s heartfelt story will resonate with those who have lost loved ones.”

 ‘The Best of Us’ is so candid, so deeply moving, so powerful, ... a testament to human resilience,” author Joyce Carol Oates wrote. “Joyce Maynard is unfathomably heroic.”

It’s not a typical love story, but Maynard – as her readers know – never has led a typical life. So much of it has been shared, vignette by vignette, in her 16 books and hundreds of essays.

“I’ve been called the ‘Queen of Over-sharing,’ ” Maynard said with a self-effacing laugh. “People say that my work is self-absorbed, but I’m the only one who can tell my story.”

That over-sharing crown was among the kinder monikers saddled on Maynard. A recent piece in The Atlantic viciously chewed on the more salacious confessions in Maynard’s memoirs and personal essays. Often, she noted, such criticism comes from other female writers.

“Women’s capacity to be mean with each other astonishes me,” Maynard said. “Misogyny is not limited to men.”

After so many decades, she’s gotten used to critics, although their words still can hurt. “I’ve been publishing my work now for a long time; I was 13 years old when I started writing for Seventeen (magazine),” she said “Writing is the one thing I’ve done longer than anything except breathe.

“I talk about the hard parts (in my book),” she added. “I’ve developed a great respect for my readers. I want to give them nothing less than the truth.”

Maynard, who turns 64 on Nov. 5, has done plenty of truth telling during her lengthy career. Her best-selling 1998 memoir, “At Home in the World,” recounts her relationship (she at age 19, he 53) with J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of “Catcher in the Rye.” (The affair did not end well.)

Her popular column, “Domestic Affairs,” ran in newspapers nationwide (including The Sacramento Bee) during the 1980s, detailing the trials and tribulations of marriage, parenthood and family life. (That column ended shortly after her first marriage and 1989 divorce.)

Through the decades, Maynard repeatedly tackled difficult subjects, from alcoholic parents and devastating relationships to (in this new memoir) why she gave up two adopted daughters from Ethiopia.

In addition to her memoirs and columns, Maynard also has written several best-selling novels. “To Die For” (starring Nicole Kidman) and “Labor Day” (with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin) became major movies.

“I go back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, but it’s always about storytelling,” Maynard said. “I want to tell a good story about something that matters – other than fornicating. My stories are all full of joy, hope and redemption.”

She also writes about personal topics that can be hard to discuss. “I have a higher tolerance of delving into emotional aspects of living,” she said. “I’m talking about things (the readers) couldn’t talk about – and that’s a good thing. At the top of the list: death.

“I get that. I happen to believe if you want to cut fear down to size, shine a light directly at it.”

Writing her life

Maynard has always known a good story when she sees one and, often over the years, she’s been one of the characters.

That started very early as Maynard came of age in the public eye. A New Hampshire native, she started writing personal essays for magazines while still in junior high. When she was a world-weary freshman at Yale, her 1972 New York Times Magazine cover piece, “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life,” made her an overnight sensation.

Looking back, she realizes how naive she had been. “I did something I would never do now – speak for my generation,” she said. “Now, I don’t talk about the 63-year-old woman’s experience; I talk about me.”

Her relationship with Barringer indeed changed her life. In her memoir, Maynard detailed how they met – via Match.com.

“I wanted to recognize that people do meet that way,” she said. “I met a lot of people who weren’t Jim; that was part of the experience. We both had been on our own for a long time. It was extraordinary good luck that we found each other at all.

“By the time we met, we knew who we were,” Maynard added. “We realized we weren’t playing games.”

Many people she met already had opinions about her and her work, she noted.

“Jim was not really familiar with my writing when we got together,” Maynard said. “That was fine; I didn’t need another fan. But he was hugely supportive of me. He supported my dreams.”

As the book tells, they crammed a lot of fun and romance into their relationship including a country wedding on a New Hampshire farm. They found their perfect home – a 7-acre slice of farmland in Contra Costa County – where Maynard still lives (with three chickens and a dog). Less than a year after that New Hampshire wedding, Barringer became ill and Maynard turned her focus to his care.

Coping with cancer and grief can make for difficult reading – and storytelling. “If only you could learn the lessons of cancer without the cancer,” Maynard said. “But this is not a book about cancer but life.”

In “The Best of Us,” she recounts “the devastating diagnosis and the struggle we were in. It put me in a situation where I’d never been. My desires changed. Never in my adult life had I not written; I didn’t know I could do that. I had a very, very tough work ethic. Every morning, I got up and got to my desk. But when Jim was diagnosed, I didn’t go back to my writing studio for nine months.”

After his death in 2016, she retreated to a tiny cabin in New Hampshire. She finished “Under the Influence,” the novel she had started before her husband’s illness, and plunged into work on “The Best of Us.”

“I knew – and so did Jim – that I would someday tell this story,” Maynard said. “But I was hoping for a different ending.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

SACRAMENTO BEE BOOK CLUB WELCOMES JOYCE MAYNARD

Best-selling author Joyce Maynard will appear for The Sacramento Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento.

Tickets are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $10 for students and $25 for general admission. Buy tickets at www.sacbee.com/events. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free. Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling Maynard’s new book “The Best of Us” (Bloomsbury, 440 pages, $27) for 30 percent off the list price.

Proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education program, serving more than 20,000 students in the region.

If you mention the Bee Book Club discount, Maynard’s new book also will be offered for a 30 percent discount through Nov. 2 in the Sacramento area at the five Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at Broadway Station, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.

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