THE BEST OF US
From New York Times bestselling author Joyce Maynard, a memoir about discovering strength in the midst of great loss.
In 2011, when she was in her late fifties, beloved author and journalist Joyce Maynard met the first true partner she had ever known. Before they met, both she and Jim had believed they were done with marriage, and even after they married, Joyce resolved that no one could alter her course of determined independence. Then, just after their one-year wedding anniversary, her new husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. During the nineteen months that followed,
From New York Times bestselling author Joyce Maynard, a memoir about discovering strength in the midst of great loss.
In 2011, when she was in her late fifties, beloved author and journalist Joyce Maynard met the first true partner she had ever known. Before they met, both she and Jim had believed they were done with marriage, and even after they married, Joyce resolved that no one could alter her course of determined independence. Then, just after their one-year wedding anniversary, her new husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. During the nineteen months that followed, as they battled his illness together, Joyce discovered for the first time what it really meant to be a couple—to be a true partner and to have one.
This is their story. Charting the course through their whirlwind romance, a marriage cut short by tragedy, and Joyce’s return to singleness on new terms, The Best of Us is a heart-wrenching, ultimately life-affirming reflection on coming to understand true love through the experience of great loss.
- Bloomsbury USA
- September 2017
- 448 Pages
“Profound, heart wrenching, inspiring, full of joy and tears and life.”—Anne Lamott
“My heart broke and soared on every page. Everyone needs to read this book.”—Ann Hood
“The Best of Us is so candid, so deeply moving, so powerful… A testament to human resilience.”—Joyce Carol Oates
1. When writing to Joyce, Deborah asks, “Have you figured out ‘hope’ yet? And if so, would you mind sharing?” (274). In order to survive the daily trials of cancer treatment, Joyce and Jim are forced to rely on hope: “a belief in our future together” (275). But as the finality of Jim’s condition becomes apparent, this belief becomes harder to sustain: “I wanted him to have hope, but as my own hope faded, a sense of loneliness overtook me. Jim was the person I always talked to about the hardest things. But how could I talk to Jim about this one?” (319). Explore how Joyce and Jim harness the power of hope throughout this memoir. Discuss the points in the memoir where Joyce’s hope is tested and how her hopefulness is sustained or diminished in the face of struggle.
2. As a caretaker and partner to someone with cancer, it is common to experience bouts of anger. Deborah writes of her husband, “I love this man to bits, but I am so angry that he has abandoned me” (298). Similarly, Joyce feels indignant about the injustice of Jim’s cancer: “Sometimes now, I was angry. Not at Jim, but at life” (262). When Jim uses the little strength he has left to cart a heavy wheelbarrow full of wood across the yard, Joyce yells at him, angry that he would waste his precious energy to haul wood rather than spend time with her. How do Joyce and Deborah balance their anger and their love? In your opinion, is their anger selfish, justified, or both? Discuss how these women manage their anger in the face of what they perceive to be the greatest injustice of their lives.
3. When she met Jim, Joyce was reluctant to recommit to the institution of marriage, especially after experiencing the bitterness of divorce. Jim revived her belief in marriage as an extended romance; their life was filled with all of the adventure, respect, and joy that her previous marriage had lacked. But it was the challenging moments that were the most transformative; Joyce writes of their battle with cancer, “This was marriage. Not the romantic dream anymore. But the bedrock” (215). Compare and contrast Joyce’s understanding of marriage at the beginning of the story and at the end. How does this memoir challenge or reinforce the traditional notion of a “good” marriage? By the end of the memoir, what do you think Joyce’s definition of marriage would be?
4. The commitment to preserving her individuality is a cornerstone of Joyce’s personality. She writes, “I believe that however much we love someone, and despite the pledges we have made to her or to him, none of us gives up our individual personhood” (269). But Jim’s cancer entwines them by vastly altering the course of their life together. How does Joyce maintain her individuality while still being a devoted wife and caregiver? On a trip to New York City for Christmas, Joyce wakes up before Jim and goes ice skating: “Except for one or two skaters, I was alone on the ice. It was a kind of rehearsal” (297). Discuss how Joyce attempts to return to her life alone after Jim’s death. How does one reconnect with themself after a tragedy?
5. When Jim becomes sick, Joyce immediately takes on the role of caregiver. She spends days researching new treatments, the best doctors, and fellow survivors who can share their wisdom. Being Jim’s caregiver swallows nearly all of her time and energy. She is encouraged to not forget to take of herself as well, but “the sorrows that surrounded me would not have been diminished by a visit to a nail salon” (267). Only people like Deborah, whose husband is also battling cancer, could understand: “As many friends as we both had, there was no explaining this to any of them. A woman I’d never met who lived three thousand miles away understood” (254). Discuss the significance of Deborah’s friendship. How does her advice differ from those who have no cancer-related experience? How does Joyce balance being an independent author as well as a caregiver? Is the balance always possible?
6. The adoption and subsequent rehoming of Adenach and Layla is Joyce’s greatest source of shame. Although she loved her adopted daughters fiercely, it quickly became apparent that she could not provide the home they needed to thrive in their new American life: “They needed a different mother. They needed a father” (50). In your opinion, why was Joyce’s situation so unsuitable? Why was a father so necessary? Although she experienced severe judgement for her decision, her daughters were the most understanding: “Many people think you were a bad person to let us go . . . but Adenach and I don’t” (396). Explore how, and if, Joyce comes to terms with her decision. Explore how the pain of this loss, Joyce’s greatest until Jim’s death, differs from the pain of losing a spouse.
7. Explore the ways that Jim and Joyce come to terms with the finality of death. Although he rarely discusses it, Jim appears to have made his own peace with the cancer that will take his life: he insists on taking Joyce to Owens Valley even though all of his doctors advise him not to; he asks his doctors to tell Joyce, and her only, when there are no further treatments to try; he even lightly suggests going to Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal. But while Jim comes to peace with the end of his life, Joyce has to come to peace with the rest of hers: “He was going away, and at certain moments I almost wished I could be dying too. Except for the pain part, that might have felt less harsh than this: the knowledge that he was leaving, and, for the moment, I was not” (399). In what ways does Joyce prepare for Jim’s death and what effects of loss are unpredictable? Discuss the point, if any, that this memoir makes about the nature of death and fatal illness. How does Joyce grapple with being the one left behind?
8. Over the course of Jim’s treatment, Joyce feels as if she has learned a tremendous amount not only about cancer, but about life. “I would like to think we would have reached this place without the discovery of a tumor in his pancreas, but I wonder if we would have” (263). When Jim loses the keys to their car at the Giants game, she is understanding rather than frustrated; she writes, “If only you could learn the lessons of cancer without having cancer” (345). How does Jim’s diagnosis help Joyce put the everyday struggles of life into perspective? In your opinion, what are the “lessons of cancer”? Explain why tragedy is able to change us in ways that other life events cannot.
9. Many times throughout her reflection, Joyce wonders whether a different decision or treatment would have saved Jim’s life or, at the very least, given them more time together. “Looking back on our decision now to interrupt chemotherapy for those two weeks, I ask myself if this might have been a moment—or one of them—when we made a fatal call” (206). With so many choices to make and so few knowable outcomes, they were often shooting in the dark: “We were like two characters in some fairy tale I hadn’t read, one that must exist somewhere, seeking the secret potion, the magic bean” (185). Explore the tragic irony of having to treat a fatal cancer with other potentially fatal operations and harmful drugs. Discuss how Jim and Joyce approach his treatment and the choices they make. In your opinion, is it better to live longer in pain or less long with a higher quality of life?
10. Joyce reveals the tragic end to her love story early on. As she recalls her life with Jim, even the most mundane moment is made profound by the knowledge of Jim’s impending diagnosis. Discuss this structural decision. How does the knowledge of Jim’s inevitable death give purpose to the story from the very beginning? Had you been unaware of Jim’s death, how would you have read the story differently?
11. Food plays a significant role in this story. Lighting the candles, uncorking the wine, and sitting down to a homemade dinner is part of the foundation of Joyce and Jim’s relationship. Far more than a simple routine, it is a lifestyle and source of comfort for them both. When Jim is forced to go on a highly restrictive diet, Joyce reels; she thinks: “But it was listening to Dr. Terdiman recite the rules of FODMAP living that brought me to tears as none of the rest of it had. A small, whining voice was muttering in my head—a voice I hated, but could not silence. Let me out of here” (258). Discuss why you think this restricted access to basic comforts is so devastating for Joyce.
12. Joyce often reflects on the importance of honesty in her work and personal life. “I believed in telling the truth about what was going on in my life. No experience was so terrifying, I’ve always said, once you turn on the light, and take a hard, clear look at the thing that most terrifies you” (272). She is persistent even in the face of those who criticize her writing about adoption and caregiving: “But it has been my way—as a woman, but also as a writer—to speak of the kinds of human experience so many of us are taught to believe we should keep hidden” (268). How does Joyce handle the outside criticism incited by her honesty?
13. Consider the quote: “Grief and pain had been harsh, but they had served as teachers” (418). After Jim’s death, Joyce decides to write their love story: finding each other, loving each other, and losing each other. At multiple points during Jim’s treatment, Joyce thinks: “How do two people get through the day, when one of them has a tumor inside his abdomen that may be killing him, and the other is simply consumed with grief?” (189). Explain the many ways in which Joyce handles grief throughout this memoir. Does she experience grief only when Jim dies, or before? What exactly does she grieve for? Discuss Joyce’s decision to write The Best of Us and how it reflects her grieving process.
14. Explore the significance of home throughout the memoir. Joyce and Jim, separately and together, have many homes. She writes: “My whole life, I’d been on a quest to find my home . . . A safe place to hang my hat, where trouble couldn’t reach me” (284). But no home was ever perfect. Even Hunsaker Canyon, which they had sacrificed so much to buy, could not protect them from the fear and tedium of their new routine. Many times, it was easier to run away: “What we had left behind us was not simply our home, but Jim’s diagnosis” (218). Explain how traveling in this memoir works and does not work as escape. While Jim’s future is still uncertain, Joyce buys a new home, sight unseen, in New Hampshire. Discuss the significance of this purchase. What possesses Joyce to make it? How does each house represent a stage of life?
15. Battling cancer, and loving someone who is battling cancer, changes you. Brushes with cancer allowed Joyce and her ex-husband to reconnect: “It was our big losses that had allowed us to make our peace. Jim’s cancer had made me a sadder but kinder person, and certainly a more forgiving one, same as I suspect Taj’s cancer had done for Steve” (249). Joyce writes that Jim “had become his finest self over the course of his ordeal.” She adds “I like to think the same was true of me” (334). What aspects of Joyce’s personality are steadfast throughout the memoir and which aspects change, and how? In your opinion, what are the characteristics of Jim and Joyce’s “finest selves”? How does cancer bring Joyce and Jim closer to, or further from, their loved ones?