On her rarely permitted visitations, Ollie ignores his mother, losing himself in video games and television. Helen has only one friend in the world, Alice, a co-worker at the catering business where Helen works part-time. And though she continues her work as a photographer, taking pictures of children, she feels she has compromised her dreams.
One evening, while working as a caterer at an art gallery opening, Helen meets Ava and Swift Havilland. The wheelchair-bound Ava fascinates Helen — “she sat very straight in her chair, and she held herself like a queen.” The two of them strike up a conversation, Ava takes an interest in Helen’s life, and soon she is a regular guest in the Havilland’s home. She admires this couple: the bold Swift, handsome, wealthy, and charismatic, his wife equally a force of personality, beautiful, opinionated, decisive.
Soon Helen falls “under their influence,” wanting to emulate the Swifts in their swashbuckling approach to the world. On her first visit to the Havilland’s home, the shy, broken Helen is told by Ava: “We need to get you a life.” Moments later, Ava adds: “Some people just need a strong person in their life to give them a little encouragement and direction.” The Havillands set out to give Helen these encouragements and directions.
Helen willingly allows herself to be lured into the Havilland sphere of influence. She attends their parties, helps Ava with odd chores, acts occasionally as a driver and runner of errands, and accepts with gratitude the castoff but expensive clothing given her by this new friend. She also sees in Swift and Ava two people who seem as passionately in love with each other as anyone she has ever known.
During this same time Helen joins a dating service, whereupon she entertains Ava and Swift with stories of her failed encounters. Then she meets Elliot, an accountant quiet in nature and tender in heart. Even as Helen begins falling in love with him, Swift and Ava, particularly Ava, find her reports of Elliot dull and unexciting, and urge Helen to look for someone else. When they finally meet Elliot, the two of them go out of their way to humiliate him.
The Havillands also take Ollie into their circle. Swift begins teaching him to swim, and soon Ollie, like his mother, becomes enamored of this glittering couple. His attraction to them helps reunite him to his mother, but acts as a wedge in her relationship with Elliot.
To say more would harm the reader’s enjoyment of this story. (By one paragraph, the flyleaf on Under The Influence tells too much of the story. Avoid reading it and jump instead into Maynard’s novel). You will uncover many riches in Under The Influence: Helen’s insights, the characters of Ollie, Elliot, Ava, and Swift, the twists of plot.
But where the book shines is in its depiction of the influence of certain people, particularly the wealthy, the reckless, and the powerful, over those whom they regard as their inferiors. Ava and Swift are not what they seem — again, to tell more would harm the plot — and the way Maynard slowly allows this couple to reveal their true selves makes for the heart of the story.
Who has not encountered people who on the surface appear in one guise but who later, with their mask having been ripped away, suddenly take on a whole new persona? Sociopaths offer us extreme examples of such people, appearing bright, compassionate, and even charismatic until one day out leaps the Mr. Hyde who was hiding all the while behind Dr. Jekyll. But even if we put aside such extreme examples, most of us have known those who manipulate friends and family by means of lies large and small, criticisms, comments, and betrayals. Perhaps some of us have even engaged in such lying or committed such a betrayal.
While reading Under The Influence, I was struck by the similarities between the Swifts and some of our politicians, particularly our current presidential candidates. Like the Swifts, certain members of that class now known as the elite live as if above the laws and customs guiding the rest of us. Some of us may admire them for their daring and their glitter. Others, however, see them as Nick saw Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby — “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made ….”
Under The Influence warns us, should we need such a warning, that we can be easily deceived by trappings like money, office, vivid personalities, and even prestigious college degrees. Too often we look at these things and consider them the cloak of the successful. Too often that cloak, when torn away, reveals a terrifying darkness.
Under The Influence by Joyce Maynard. William Morrow, 2016. 321 pages.