’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Surely, many agree with that famous line by poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Sadly, author Joyce Maynard was cheated out of the “better” part of her great love story.
After a hurtful 1989 divorce in her home state of New Hampshire, Maynard threw her limitless energy and passion into raising three kids. She kept writing novels (“To Die For,” “Labor Day” among them), personal essays and more.
She remained “a solo operator,” always looking for Mr. Right but not finding him, always pained that her kids weren’t growing up in her image of a humming-along household with “an intact family.”
Maynard later relocated to California. At 58, via Match.com, she met San Francisco attorney Jim Barringer, a low-key rock ‘n’ roll lover, a car guy, serious about photography. Like Maynard, Jim was long divorced, parent to three kids, burdened by broken-home guilt.
Their first phone conversation lasted four and a half hours.
“I didn’t expect you to be such a knockout” were Jim’s first words to Maynard when she arrived at Marin County’s Lark Creek Inn for their first date. They spent so much time revealing themselves to each other that they never ordered dinner.
With their combined six adult kids and many friends in attendance, they married on a New Hampshire hilltop in the summer of 2014. She was 59, he was 62. A few months after their first wedding anniversary, Jim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The rest of their marriage, 19 months, was besieged by the cancer fight. Jim died right after his 64th birthday in June 2016.
In her new memoir, “The Best of Us,” which she’ll discuss Saturday at the AJC Decatur Book Festival, Maynard, now 63, chronicles her 1,647 days — counting from first meetup — with the love of her life.
Joyce and Jim fell fast and hard. Couldn’t believe their supreme luck. He was steady, reserved and neat. She was impatient, prone to drama, messy. “I’m not a good driver,” she told him. “But I am,” Jim replied.
The solo operator loved having a protector at last, her own “guard dog.” The giddy couple danced to John Prine’s “Glory of True Love” in their kitchen. They slept wrapped around each other, Maynard writes, her hand on Jim’s stomach, his around her waist, “my face pressed into his hair that I loved to reach out and stroke in the night.” They were “two people drunk in love.”
(If there’s a “Best of Us” movie, she’d cast George Clooney as Jim — “but he’d have to lose a ton of weight” because Jim got down to 90 pounds. Who to play Maynard? One friend described her as “older-woman hot,” a cross between Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn.)
Maynard splits her new 434-page memoir into two parts: “Before” Jim’s diagnosis, and “After,” which starts on Page 159. There’s a play-by-play of the cancer fight, yet Maynard’s storytelling still sings. Shiny nuggets, both sweet reminders of the couple’s deep love and friendship and marital wisdoms, are sprinkled throughout the medical ordeal.
Over the years, the author has received criticism for wearing her heart on her sleeve, for spilling the beans about personal stuff — including her nine-month affair with the late oddball-reclusive author J.D. Salinger when she was 19 and he was 53. (More about that period in her 1998 memoir, “At Home in the World.”)
In 2015, Maynard put her work on hold and became a student of pancreatic cancer, a tenacious bulldog fixed on Jim beating terrible odds. In “The Best of Us,” she details Jim’s string of doctors, nontraditional specialists, treatments and endless distressing side effects and setbacks.
The couple pursued a no-stones-unturned approach to fighting Jim’s cancer. Nowhere was too far to travel, no expense too great, nothing off-limits to try — from eating nutrient-rich dirt to ingesting a healthy person’s fecal matter. (Yes, via capsules.)
“I connected to that ‘magical thinking’ phrase,” Maynard said in a phone interview. Nearby San Francisco had top specialists and facilities, “but the idea was that if we go 3,000 miles from home (to Boston) and do what was harder than the already impossibly hard thing, then he’d have a better shot. My recurrent theme to my approach to Jim’s devastating diagnosis was to make all kinds of bargains.”
At one point in “The Best of Us,” the couple visit a controversial specialist Maynard calls “Dr. Miracle.” He asked them to pay whatever they thought his advice was worth. Maynard paid $1,000. “If I wrote a check for $1,000, then that meant his advice was good and Jim would live,” she said.
She knew she would eventually write this tragic love story, and Jim knew it, too.
“I’m not uncomfortable sharing embarrassing secrets,” Maynard said. “I’m a writer and that’s how I deal with what happens in my life. I lay out my life and it is for people to make out what they will. Some readers and critics say, oh my God, I don’t ever want to be like her.
“But it’s – here is one woman’s life. Bounce your own against it, see how you connect. You may learn something about yourself.
“My comfort zone is saying what happened – and it’s no mystery. My father got drunk every night and we never talked about it. I thought it was just us and it was my job to keep it a secret. I lived in fear of people finding out.
“I was ashamed and it was a shame. But that was an unacceptable state of being to inhabit.”
In the 1980s, Maynard wrote frankly in “Domestic Affairs,” her syndicated New York Times column. The column detailed the small joys and frustrations of life on a New Hampshire farm with her first husband and their three young kids. In between writing fiction, she’s been spilling the beans about her real experiences ever since.
“It made me feel less alone, and I believe it has made some readers feel less alone. You know, it’s a two-way street.”
Now she is alone again, starting a grueling two-month book tour in Atlanta with “a book that means more to me than any of my others.”
She often slept alongside Jim in his many hospital beds. For Joyce and Jim, “a single bed was enough.”
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