Joyce Maynard's 'Labor Day' is a killer love story

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LABOR DAY, by Joyce Maynard. William Morrow, 244 pp., $24.99.

Here's the premise: A battered, bleeding murderer on the lam from prison meets a 13-year-old boy and his reclusive single mom in the New Hampshire discount store to which they've made a rare foray. They take him home, fall in love, and hole up for a five-day honeymoon of pie making, baseball throwing and headboard banging (or, in young Henry's case, listening to headboard banging) - until, inevitably, the sirens wail.

As in her best-known novel, "To Die For" - in which a newscaster pays her boy toy to kill her husband - Joyce Maynard begins with a flashy tabloid premise. But instead of the cool, cutting satire of the earlier work, "Labor Day," narrated by Henry, is suffused with tenderness, dreaminess and love. It is tender even toward its villain - not the convict, but an anorexic teenage girl Henry meets in the library. But is tenderest toward Adele, the mom, a one-time dancer who looks like Ginger on "Gilligan's Island," a damaged woman hiding at the end of a dead-end street in a very small town. She has laid in a year's supply of macaroni and soup; they have mail-order catalogs (the book is set in the mid '80s, before online shopping), they have a hamster, mother-son home dance lessons and Spanish flash cards.

As Adele puts it, "How many errands does a person really need to do? . . . When you think about it, all that going around to places just wasted so much time you could be spending in your own home."

"Labor Day" is first and foremost a page-turner, and its momentum and brevity compensate for a couple of distractions along the way. For example, though I was moved by the depth of its compassion for Adele's losses - a stillborn baby and a divorce - I wondered if an adolescent boy could feel and know as much about them as Henry does. Supposedly he is telling the story from a distance of many years, but this older-and-wiser perspective surfaces rarely and feels like an abandoned premise or an afterthought. Fortunately, the traces of wishful ventriloquism in some of his insights are balanced with moments of pure 13-ness - insecurity, naiveté, horniness, a little snideness.

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The other stumbling block to suspension of disbelief is the character of Frank Chambers. The convicted killer of his wife and infant son, Frank is a wholly blameless and profoundly gentle saint (not to mention parenting guru and pastry chef). For nonpareil soft-core fantasy, try the scene where this man with a price on his head carefully ties Adele to a chair with silk scarves and feeds her dinner.

For me, these caveats were swept away by the steamroller plot, which shatters everyone's happiness with misunderstandings and betrayals born of colliding sexualities. Though it is being compared to Ian McEwan's "Atonement" for this reason, "Labor Day" puts back together the world it destroys. "Eighteen years passed," opens the next-to-last chapter, beginning the part where you definitely need to get a box of tissues.

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