Anne Tyler

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

It is more than eight years since Joyce Maynard wrote "An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life," her wry New York Times magazine article about growing up among the jaded youth of the 60's. "Baby Love," her first novel, is an entirely different sort of work … but there's much in it that recalls "Looking Back." The tone is the same: right on target, cued to the rangy, slangy rhythms of modern life, though lacking the embarrassing archness that characterized the earlier piece. There is the same acute awareness of the present moment, or at least, of the present moment as perceived by the public. Television is a constant force. So are sensational headlines, self-improvement articles, pop heroes, rock songs and glossy advertisements. (p. 8)

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["Baby Love" starts out] as a kind of informal sociological study, focusing on a group of poorly equipped, poorly educated young people with limited dreams, their visions of the ideal formed by what they glimpse on TV and in popular magazines. It is a pleasure, almost a voyeuristic pleasure, to observe the details of their lives as catalogued here: the teenaged wife's Harlequin Parfaits, made according to a recipe on the back of a Cool Whip package, and her pigs-in-a-blanket and her Duncan Hines cake pepped up with a box of Jell-O chocolate pudding; the K-Mart baby portraits; the bowling dates; the slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am sex; and the carefully filled in scrapbook…. (pp. 8-9)

It is, above all, a disquieting look at the separateness and the loneliness sometimes experienced between the sexes—and most particularly, between new parents….

Unfortunately, Joyce Maynard takes her plot beyond its natural boundaries. Not content to confine herself to the story of four young blue-collar mothers and mothers-to-be, she veers to include a trendy unmarried couple from New York City, complete with Cuisinart and Marimekko floor cushions. She sees fit to add a woman working through a nervous breakdown over a failed love affair, gorging on honey yogurt and granola day after day and then sticking a finger down her throat.

There's also a psychopathic killer who once kept a woman in sexual slavery for three years, so isolating her from the outside world that "she didn't even know Ed Sullivan had died."…

Things go too far, in other words. Zaniness intrudes; wacky comedy makes its clanging entrance. The pathetic sincerity of the original four characters (and of the boy-husband, and of the wistful father of one of the girls) is obliterated by the hitchhiker with her YSL tote bags. It's a pity, because the heart of "Baby Love" is a very fine book indeed. When Joyce Maynard talks about ordinary life—the Jell-O and Pampers and the baby's five-month birthday party complete with Holly Hobbit paper tablecloth—she shows herself to be a writer of uncommon promise. She has an unswerving eye, a sharply perked ear, and the ability to keep her readers hanging on her words. (p. 9)

Anne Tyler, "Girl Mothers," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 16, 1981, pp. 8-9.

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