How the Light Gets In: A Novel

Image of How the Light Gets In: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 25, 2024
William Morrow
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It’s hard to publish a sequel to a powerful or popular novel, and even more so in a case like this, where author Joyce Maynard has said that she never intended to return to the complicated family she wrote about three years ago in Count the Ways.

How, and how much, should the author summarize the characters and plot of the first book? Could all the key information just be crammed into a prologue that readers could skip? Should the new novel stand on its own?

Maynard—the bestselling author of 18 novels and nonfiction books—often does it right in this sequel, How the Light Gets In, by looping back to plot points from fresh angles. For instance, the prologue fills in details from a crucial scene in the first book—the afternoon when the family’s youngest child, Toby, nearly drowns and is rushed to the emergency room. As Toby’s mother, Eleanor, watches her husband, Cam, ask a nurse for change so he can get snacks for Toby’s sisters from a vending machine, Eleanor thinks angrily: “Our son might be dead. Or brain dead. What are you doing thinking about M&Ms?” Then she adds, to herself: “And it’s your fault.”

With just those few words, Maynard subtly establishes the basics.

But other times, this sequel spends too many pages mechanically summarizing old scenes and plot twists—sometimes even repeating anecdotes that appeared only a few chapters ago in this very book.

Luckily, this is a much different novel from its predecessor. Less reliant on plot, it’s more of an elegiac look back at both the previous book’s narrative and also the 14 or so years since that book ended. If Eleanor had thought she’d already come to an acceptance of her life’s path, it turns out that she has some more reckoning to do.

In Count the Ways, Eleanor and Cam at first seemed to have a fairy-tale marriage, raising their three children on a farm in New Hampshire where Cam makes wooden bowls and Eleanor draws a cartoon strip. However, Eleanor can’t forgive Cam for the accident, which leaves Toby with drastically reduced mental functioning. Their marriage falls apart, Eleanor moves out, Cam takes up with the babysitter, and one by one the children abandon Eleanor to return to their father and the farm.

As How the Light Gets In begins, Cam has just died of pancreatic cancer. Eleanor had reconciled with him and returned to the farm to nurse him through the last 12 months (the babysitter having dumped him for a younger boyfriend a few years ago).

Standing with her children at the waterfall where Cam wanted his ashes scattered, Eleanor muses, “She knows now, as she did not once, what matters and what really doesn’t. . . . She knows that every family’s history is made up of many stories—all probably possessing some element of truth, but none of them, individually, containing all of it.”

In fact, Eleanor, her children, and some new characters will have more stories to share in this book. Eleanor meets a sexy polar scientist who is always jetting off to luxury hotels or campsites in Antarctica. Her oldest child, Al, and his wife are repeatedly turned down as adoptive parents because Al is transgender. Toby is accused of molesting a young boy. And Eleanor’s daughter Ursula—who blamed Eleanor for the breakup of the marriage—has cut Eleanor almost entirely out of her life, other than a brief, chilly phone call now and then, or a couple of hours babysitting Ursula’s two children. Yet Eleanor can see that Ursula’s own marriage is in trouble.

Toby, in particular, gains depth in this sequel. The innocence and honesty of a boy grows into a different kind of innocence and honesty in a 40-year-old, brain-injured man.

Ultimately, even in its dives into middle-age romance and the impact of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, this is a story about motherhood.

A mother is “given this person to take care of,” Eleanor thinks, toward the end of the book. “She could have tried harder. Could have done better. Could have given more. When, in the life of a mother, is that not true?”

If Eleanor is now at peace with her story, the next generation may yet have some books for Maynard to write.