This review contains spoilers for the book.
Written by Mia Kernaghan.
We‘ve seen it before, the burly husband setting down his briefcase after a long day of work to plant a big kiss on the love of his life, his wife, in the doorway. Their American home lined with big olive trees, and the two sharing a never ending romance with doses of fun. And while we get some of this simple, good love in “The Best of Us,” we also get much more.
As many good love stories begin, Joyce Maynard, author of the New York Times bestseller “At Home in the World” and film adapted “Labor Day,” tells her tale of being lonely, but fiercely independent in her late fifties after being divorced for 25 years. In her memoir, she reflects on the mishaps of her many dates over the years, only wanting a good man to share meals and wine with, a partner to travel to Italy. As Joyce dabbles in online dating, no man can suppress her familiar sadness – not Doug, the bar snail, or Martin, the boat docker. But then, almost miraculously, appears Jim.
Joyce initially describes Jim as looking like “a Republican,” a lawyer practicing in San Francisco wearing a pressed white shirt and a Rolex watch, driving an old Boxster 100 miles a minute. But within the first hour of talking, they learn that they share the same half hidden loneliness – a failed marriage, irreparable relationships with their children – but hope to try again. And though Joyce feels a natural reluctance to compromise her old ways of life to start anew with Jim, she eventually upgrades his shoebox space in her closet for a home with him.
Despite their age, Joyce and Jim kindle a child-like love, listening to Led Zeppelin in the Boxster and eating supper kitty-cornered at the kitchen table to be close. They talk about growing olive trees together in their home, grandchildren, having another thirty years left together if they’re lucky enough. On Jim‘s pick-up list for his ride back from work: Good olives. Smog certificate. FLOWERS FOR JOYCE!
But like all good love stories there must be an end, and, though the two don‘t understand it at the time, the end begins when Jim is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The two trade their TV type-of-love for drain insertions, drain revisions, endoscopy surgery, Folfirinox infusions and Creon and Dilaudid and pills to keep the cancer at bay and their hope alive. We feel a shift in the depth of their love as their plans change from sharing meals in Italy and growing olive trees, to hopes of Jim eating solid food and living long enough to see the tomato plant sprout.
Yet there is still a youthful love that the two share, as they spend one of the last nights of Jim‘s life in the handicap section at a Led Zeppelin concert. “I’m taking Joyce on a date,” Jim says, though the hospital staff doesn‘t believe him. And though Joyce has to carry him, now 90 pounds, in her arms to the medical tent most of the night, he remains the same loving man whether in his pressed white shirt, yellow hospital gown or silver-buckled Zeppelin getup. Their flowery television type-of-romance is trimmed down to its core, as Joyce and Jim share a final night of good love while losing the battle to pancreatic cancer.
“Remember this moment,” Joyce thinks to herself, knowing that their time is limited.
Maynard’s memoir is real in ways we know ordinary love and its occasional not-so-good sides, from binge-watching television shows together to bickering in the kitchen about not having enough space, and I think that’s partly what makes this book so poignant. But the true magic lies in Maynard’s ability to write with tender bravery as we fight pancreatic cancer with her and Jim each day, and muster as much good love as we can with what energy remains after infusions, surgeries, and antibiotics. “The Best of Us” is a tale filled with the television-type-of-love that we‘re all familiar with and a sadness we may not know but grow to understand, in order to show us that even when love is not simple, it can still be good.