The Best of Us: A Memoir
By Joyce Maynard
437 pages, $27
Life is neither fair -- nor dull -- in Joyce Maynard’s latest memoir which, after 159 pages of unapologetic self congratulation, suddenly turns to gold.
Surely this is intentional, Maynard being a teacher of the memoir genre -- and “The Best of Us”a tale of transformation. But it nearly kept me from reading far enough to find that the book is actually an affecting and profound account of how terminal illness sometimes has silver linings.
"I learned the full meaning of marriage only as mine was drawing to a close,” Maynard explains in a brief prologue. “I discovered what love was as mine departed the world.”
To those of us who have followed the unpredictable Maynard for the past 45 years, these are coming-of-age words. Here is the woman who, as a girl, penned the famous 1972 New York Times Magazine essay, “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life,” then dropped out of Yale to live with literary icon and recluse J.D. Salinger, after which she wrote a memoir (for which she was excoriated for not writing about Salinger) and, later, a second memoir (for which she was excoriated because she did write about Salinger), then went on to adopt Ethiopian sisters she did not keep (for which she was also excoriated). “The Best of Us,” therefore, can be nothing short of an act of courage, Maynard’s several successful novels and other works notwithstanding.
James Barringer is its raison d’être – he an established San Francisco attorney when he meets Maynard (on match.com) in 2011. Both are divorced, each for nearly 25 years, and each has two sons and a daughter.
“Here was a good man,” Maynard thinks from the outset as she describes their courtship; “Jim,” as he is referred to throughout the book, is a seemingly perfect foil for her many impulses. There is a boastful, almost smug, feel to this section of the memoir – as if Maynard needs to convince herself that her life is not only extraordinary but far more so than others.
There is also an undercurrent of complaint, as if even landing the man of her dreams is not enough. But stand by! We know, via the prologue, that change is coming.
First (in the summer of 2013), there is a joyful wedding -- at which a friend of Jim’s notes that life with Maynard “might prove a little taxing.” But we are glad for her, at 60, marrying such a man as Jim.
Then, a little more than a year into the marriage, Jim, experiencing back pain, is told there is a tumor in his pancreas.
“I looked at Jim’s hands, his shoulders – stiffening – his beautiful thick hair, his dear, lined face,” Maynard writes. “He still looked like himself, but everything was different now, life as we’d known it gone in the space it took for a man we’d never met to deliver that one sentence.”
This is not an overreaction – Jim’s prognosis is grim. “My father died of this,” the physician says. “(There are) things we can do to make you more comfortable … Six months …”
If Maynard has spent much of her life focused on her individuality, she now finds herself, with Jim, in a fight, if not for his life, at least for more time. It is a near-universal situation, men and women in almost every part of the world getting similar diagnoses every day – and Maynard rises to the occasion, immediately letting life’s pettier details fall to the wayside: “I looked again at my husband. My husband, the word I’d had a hard time uttering since our wedding day, but not now. All issues with the election, birthday presents, the appearance of obliviousness, car trouble, money trouble, children trouble, were swept away.”
Jim’s particular tumor is “borderline resectable,” Maynard says, meaning “the prospects for surgically removing the tumor would be slim.” But there is a procedure known as “the Whipple” that, were Jim a viable candidate, might “save” him. At least for a while. It is, according to Maynard, “one of the most involved of all surgeries,” calling for “removal of part of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, the gall bladder, the duodenum, as well as every lymph node the surgeon could get his scalpel on, and a complete rerouting of the digestive system.”
What follows is a wild and intense journey from surgeon to surgeon, to a nutritionist and an herbalist, all of them notable, and a whole new network of friends, including a breakfast club’s worth of survivors of the Whipple for Jim and a number of wives and widows of pancreatic cancer victims for Maynard, hers but a click away.
There are also windows of “normalcy,” when Jim is feeling almost well, and the couple seizes the opportunity to travel, go to rock concerts, Giants and Warriors games, and spend time with family and close friends, Jim ever with a camera in his hands. In fact, in the four-and-a-half-year span of their relationship, Maynard and Jim manage to visit, and sometimes stay in, and photograph, France, Guatemala, Hungary, Chile and the whole of New England, the latter traveling on Jim’s motorcycle.
Jim plays bass in a band, and continues, on a lesser scale, to practice law. But, for the last 19 months of his life, the specter of his cancer looms.
“It was not the prospect of death we dwelt on,” Maynard tells us. “There is no way, I think, for a person to get his brain around the likelihood of his own imminent and painful death – and keep his mind there on a twenty-four hour basis.” No. She and Jim, well aware of the word “denial,” still proceed as if they are captive to “some fairy tale (they) hadn’t read, one that must exist somewhere, seeking the secret potion, the magic bean.”
They knew the answer wasn’t likely out there, Maynard says, “but believing it might be got us through our days.”
Laser focused and loving on every page now, Maynard is completely out of herself, realizing “that I no longer viewed what we were doing … as some kind of departure from our real life. This WAS our real life. I stopped thinking about the way I spent my days as an interruption of my work. This WAS my work.”
Maynard as caretaker is a revelation, both beautiful and heart-wrenching -- a role she undertakes (as everything grows harder) with grit, grace and growth. Her earlier memoirs may have had their naysayers, but no one can naysay “The Best of Us.”
The memoir does cry out, though, for a photo or two of Jim -- to whom the book is dedicated, and whose life, and death, it depicts. But perhaps that, too, is meant – death being the great equalizer, and Maynard’s experience with it, while strikingly captured, is not, in the end, unique.
She began the memoir, she tells us movingly, on the day Jim died, later recognizing “as I did this that I was reluctant to get to the end – as if, so long as I hadn’t reached the last chapter, it might still turn out differently.”
Karen Brady is a former News columnist and regular News book reviewer.