“Hmmm,” Joyce Maynard mused thoughtfully, in a pleasant, gentle voice. “Maybe it’s not the right time yet for you.”
She was referring to my resistance about online dating, after I’d claimed that I had no time, no will and frankly no patience to put myself out there in a sea filled with virtual strangers.
But that was later.
I called Maynard while she was vacationing in Maine, and I interrupted her as she was taking some pies out of the oven. “Can I call you back?” she asked me hurriedly. “The crusts are almost done.”
She called me about 15 minutes later to talk about her new book, “The Best of Us,” a memoir about her three-year marriage to her husband Jim, whom she met on Match.com and lost to pancreatic cancer.
She calls their marriage a “true partnership” — and a rarity, considering that she was 58 and her match, San Francisco attorney Jim Barringer, was 61, and they each had three grown children.
In their first conversation, Jim “broke all the rules of online dating and told me things about himself that people usually don’t disclose when they just meet someone,” Maynard says.
This included his difficult childhood with a very strict father, and his breakup with both the mother of his children and a long-term relationship with someone else.
Known for bestselling novels like “Labor Day” and “To Die For,” as well as her relationship with J.D. Salinger, which she acknowledged in her 1998 memoir, “At Home in the World,” Maynard, now 63, is certainly no stranger to publicity.
But with “The Best of Us,” she reveals a new side of herself as she chronicles her time with Jim.
Counting from their first meeting, it was just 1,647 days — and Maynard divides the 434-page memoir into two parts: “Before” Jim’s diagnosis and “After.”
“I really see this book as a story about marriage, and my discovery of what marriage really is, which I had never known before,” Maynard says.
You write that age changed you in many ways — but not how you view love. Did your view change when you met Jim?
“I still describe myself as a romantic, but my idea of what constituted romance was entirely different. Cancer, and I mention this in the book, cancer is not romantic. But the level of intimacy and trust that we located over the course of that ordeal brought us to the deepest place that we’d ever known in our relationship. I wish there was a way to learn the lessons of cancer without cancer, and that’s part of what this book attempts to explore. I didn’t envision it as a book just for people suffering with cancer or the partners of loved ones who have cancer, I hope it’s helpful for people who are on one side or another of the experience that I lived.”
Would you say that your parents’ divorce influenced your views on how love should be?
“I was already an adult when my parents divorced, so it wasn’t as much their divorce as the fact that I had no picture in my head of what a good marriage looked like. It was the absence of images of partnership, and I think I substituted that with a lot of images that came from television. I am of the family-situation-comedy generation of the ’60s. Well, a combination of this and rock and roll. I think I also believed there had to be a certain kind of tragedy in love, and I guess I found that eventually. But I came to recognize only in my 50s, that there’s great beauty in normalcy, something that I never really had with a truly pleasant partner.
“But not a perfect partner! You know, the original jacket copy for this book had a line: ‘Joyce and Jim had a blissful marriage,’ and I got on the phone right away and said, ‘take out that blissful.’ I don’t believe in the concept of a blissful marriage, unless maybe you’re on drugs all the time.
“That’s not what we had, we had a real marriage with real issues, and what made it extraordinary and so precious to me was our ability to work on the things that were a struggle and to be committed to something bigger than any one of us getting our way. That was a new idea for me. I knew about selflessness and sacrifice for my children, but I didn’t know what it felt like to care about my partner’s needs more than my own.”
I was amazed at your description of the first conversation you had with Jim over the phone when you connected on Match.com. You said that you spoke with him for four hours and revealed deep, personal things.
“I talk about lots of things that other people don’t talk about. I think I was permanently inoculated against shame by having grown up with so much of it. So, my comfort zone is to talk openly about things that might (make) other people uncomfortable. But with Jim, I sensed right away that he was a substantial person, and if he was going to be in my life, he was going to be in my life in a big way. It wasn’t going to be a casual relationship with him.
“One of the things that we sometimes do is that we imagine we have to present a certain picture of ourselves, an appealing self, to a prospective partner. And then we get into trouble because you can’t keep that up forever. I never understand what people are thinking when they post a 20-year-old photograph on Match.com. What do they think is going to happen when they finally meet the person?
“But with Jim, there was none of that. And I just felt right away, OK, I’m going to tell you all the stuff, and I think he did the same thing, and if you’re still standing at the end of it, then we can talk. So I gave him a very strong dose of who I was and what my life had been, and he did the same. He admitted to a lot of self-doubt, and I thought he had to be a very strong person to admit to that.”
When you began the relationship with your husband, you were also seeing somebody else. Did you ever have doubts that you were making a mistake in choosing Jim over the other person?
“No. No, I did not. I was involved with a good man, but it was an unambitious relationship. By the time I said goodbye to (him), I was ready to embark on something much more serious (with Jim).”
Jim was angry when he found out you had been seeing someone else at the same time, and he almost ended things with you.
“Oh, yes! He had a big problem with it. And that was an example of both of us working together to make things work. He said what he needed to say, which was that the situation didn’t feel good to him. And I also said what I needed to say, which was I wouldn’t know after three dates if I could make a big commitment to someone like you, and you are a big commitment. But at the end of that conversation, I was ready to do that.”
Did he know your work as a writer?
I think he might have been aware, but he didn’t approach me as a reader. He approached me as a suitor, and I loved that.”
When he proposed to you, it seemed you didn’t like the idea of marriage as much as he did.
“Definitely not! (laughs). I was kind of horrified by that diamond, and I wasn’t very comfortable with the concept of marriage. It wasn’t something I felt I needed, but I have to tell you, I am grateful every day that I married him. It’s not that I would have left him if we weren’t married, I never would have. But I recognize now as I never did before that marriage is different, it means something.
“Marriage is a very public commitment among other things, and in light of what happened, I’m so glad we stood up in front of all our friends and said, ‘we love each other, we will be together.’ When disaster struck, and it was a disaster, our friends understood what was at stake.”
There is a part in the book where you state that between hospital trips and chemotherapy and surgeries, you felt nostalgia for how your life used to be. Is it true you received a lot of public backlash for saying that?
“This is something that people regard as shocking, but at the core of what (Jim) and I had was an honest relationship. We told each other the truth and that was no terrible disclosure to him, that was a human disclosure, and he could always deal with those.
“Jim was the person who I could talk to about the hardest things in my life, and in this case the hardest thing was Jim being sick and the real fear of losing him. Who was I going to talk to? I would talk to Jim about that. I was afraid of losing myself and who I was, the part of me that was going to live on.”
Which part of the book do you think Jim would have liked the most?
“I really think he would have liked my admiration for how brave he was in the end. A million women would have fallen in love with the man I met on that first date. He was handsome and debonair, and he drove a sports car. I think he would have loved the recognition of his heroism at the very end and how brave he was. I also think he would have liked being fully acknowledged as a really funny man. He was gloriously entertaining. The most important thing to me about Jim was his great kindness. He was an extraordinarily kind man.”
What would you like readers to take away from this book?
“To treasure their days. And if they have a partner that they love, to treasure that partner. And if they don’t have a partner, to hold to the standards of finding a true one.”