Joyce Maynard found her best self in a marriage doomed by cancer
By Lou Fancher
There is no GPS for the journey taken by author Joyce Maynard during the 19 months before she began her new memoir, “The Best of Us” (Bloomsbury, $27, 434 pages).
During that agonizing period, Maynard sought with her husband treatment, cure or deliverance from the pancreatic cancer that invaded their year-old marriage in November of 2014. But her beloved Jim Barringer, a San Francisco lawyer and professional photographer, succumbed to the cancer. His heroic battle included consuming nutrition-rich, soil-covered vegetables and tenacious clinging to a lifestyle that embraced art, music, world cuisine, motorcycle travel and Andes mountain climbing. He endured five excruciating rounds of chemotherapy, a 14-hour surgical procedure and more. Maynard, interviewed at her Lafayette home, says that she’d hardly learned to utter the term “husband,” when she found herself with a hard-to-swallow title: “widow.”
The elegant, intelligent, energetic and intensely devoted man with whom she had found in her 60s perfect companionship, romance and mature commitment—each had been divorced for 25 years prior to their marriage—was gone. To find her way forward, Maynard did the thing she has always done: She wrote, starting on the night he died.
Her memoir chronicles a relationship that began with a 2011 meeting on Match.com and continued with her moving from Mill Valley to Barringer’s house in the Oakland hills. Marrying in 2013, they found a seven-acre, multiple-dwelling hideaway in Hunsaker Canyon that became their dream home. Maynard’s movements, though, were an outward manifestation of a more significant, internal odyssey.
This fiercely independent woman dedicated to a career that has produced more than a dozen books found her view of love and romance undergoing a sea change from visions of candlelit dancing and trips to Paris. “This (was a) wonderful man with whom I had great and interesting times – I didn’t use the word ‘husband’ – then suddenly, I was saying, ‘We’re getting chemo.’” Superficial romance was stripped, and what was left was a deeper intimacy, she says. “I was really with him. He trusted me at his most vulnerable moments. He let me in.”
Which is why the memoir is not about death so much as it is about finding in the deep shadows of illness obvious things, like appreciating time with loved ones and the value of dying at home and not in hospital. Importantly, it has Maynard discovering confidence, nobility, dignity and her best self. “I had never given myself over for a partner. With my children, that wasn’t ever a problem, but for a partner, no. Cancer taught me that.”
Lest anyone think that means she doesn’t mourn every moment without Barringer, Maynard often says she wishes cancer’s lessons could be learned without having to have cancer. Although she wrote the manuscript in a record three months and says, improbably, that it was “a joyful experience, until near the end, when I didn’t want him to die again,” she spent exhausting months redrafting it. Now, having with this book looked death “straight in the eye” and having with Barringer “surrendered her fierce, controlling heart,” she is ready to “let the story go.”
Great stories, she notes, often include a character with a problem who is changed by the end. A good memoir meets those absolute criteria she has whittled and refined through decades of teaching the genre at workshops in Guatemala and the United States. “I don’t trust a memoir whose author is unprepared to show her or his failures,” she says.
A recent review that accuses Maynard of perennial “oversharing” cuts her to the heart and receives a swift response: “I did not take out aspects that reflect poorly on me. Shoplifting a hairbrush was in, because it was a physical manifestation of the craziness that inhabits you when you’re that worn down. The adoption story predates Jim, but has everything to do with the woman I was when I met him. (Maynard adopted, then found what she believes to be a better home for two girls from Guatemala.) It was what I thought at the time was the most unloving failure of my life. Fundamentally, I wasn’t strong enough, I still needed to get loved back by them. With Jim, I learned I could love absolutely, wholeheartedly and to the end.”
At writing classes and workshops she leads, the atmosphere is gentle. “I was raised by a mother who was ruthlessly critical, especially of my writing. I’m older and know more of life. I’ve heard so many stories – I’m very accepting. Nothing is going to shock me.” She does hope, however, she will continue to be surprised by her own writing. “I want to grow. I want my next novel to be harder to write.”
On the book tour this fall, readers have been telling Maynard she has given voice to experiences they have shared but could rarely say aloud. “I’ve never had a tour where more people show up, she notes. “I think there’s a hunger for a story that is actually a hopeful story. Ultimately, these are good characters doing their best. They’re people who believe in love, generosity, community—and they have a kind of faith.”