The tone of The Usual Rules can be pretty somber at times because Wendy is going through a particularly difficult time—after all, she's dealing with a national and personal tragedy. Throughout the book, Wendy tries to cope with her mother's death and her own feelings of guilt over having been a "bad daughter," and this colors the whole story. In fact, Wendy even says at one point that color no longer exists in her world:
All this time, Wendy still hadn't cried. She thought it might be a relief, but she couldn't do it. The dull Novocain sensation that had begun taking hold that Tuesday had overtaken her now. The whole world, everything around her, had turned flat and colorless. (3.225)
This same colorless despair comes across in the tone of the book. There's a neutrality to the tone, a sort of depressed and flat feeling that comes up time and again. Check this passage out for another example:
Even Amelia, as talkative a person as she was, must have known there was nothing to say. The two of them lay on the floor, holding each other, until very gradually the crying slowed to where it was only long, sad sighs. Then, finally, quiet. Even after that, they just lay there awhile.
Maybe we should have some Haagen-Dazs, Amelia suggested. It seemed as good an idea as anything else. (3.230-231)
There's nothing melodramatic about this scene. It doesn't play up Wendy's pain—it's big enough on its own. And then when Amelia suggests ice cream, the response is pretty neutral: "It seemed as good an idea as anything else" puts pretty much everything in the world on the same level. Nothing is wonderful, nothing is terrible; everything simply is. This mirrors the flatness of depression really well, infusing the book with the dominant emotion Wendy feels.
Although The Usual Rules is a story about a great tragedy, it's also a coming of age tale because the main character is a teenage girl who does quite a bit of growing up throughout the story. Wendy is already in a period of transition when the book begins—with the usual teenage angst and heightened interest in romance—but the death of her mother really forces her to grow up. And when she moves all the way to California to live with her biological father, Wendy learns a lot about herself, as well as how to be self-sufficient and tough through truly hard times.
If this sounds like something young adult readers might be able to relate to, you're totally right. While September 11 was a truly exceptional event, much of what Wendy thinks about and navigates is classic growing up stuff. We're talking kissing, boys, parental disappointments, and all that jazz. Combine this with the book's lack of five-dollar words and easy to follow plot, and we're definitely in YA lit territory.
While The Usual Rules is about what happens after 9/11, it's also about the family dynamics in Wendy's life. For this reason, this book also falls into the family drama genre.
Before 9/11, she lives with her mother, stepfather, and half-brother—and can't imagine her life being any different. But when Wendy's mother dies in the World Trade Center, they all come to realize that she was the center of their little clan, and they struggle to redefine their family life without her. On top of that, Wendy's biological father Garrett wants her to come live with him in California. And so Wendy flies across the country and moves into an unfamiliar house in order to try and build a relationship with her father… even though he's been largely absent from her life.
The title of The Usual Rules refers to the fact that Wendy's life has been turned utterly upside down due to the events of 9/11—and the usual rules that she's come to rely on no longer apply.
Nothing about Wendy's life is normal or the same after her mother dies in the attacks on the World Trade Center, and she can't just go on like she always has. Her family changes, her perspective on the world changes, and even her home changes when she moves all the way to California to live with her biological father. For better or worse, the usual rules really don't apply anymore, and navigating this is the main struggle Wendy has to wade through.
At the end of the book, Wendy goes back to New York City to be with Josh and Louie. As she picks Louie up from school, she reflects on how they'll have to have a memorial service for her mother soon and how sad that will be:
They would be very sad that day, and for many days after. In certain ways always. They would also never be the same as how they used to be. But they would also be happy. (34.120)
Wendy recognizes that in saying goodbye to Janet—and accepting that she is not coming back again—they can move on as a family. They'll have the freedom to be happy again, and that's the optimistic note the story ends on. Even in the face of such tragedy, there is light and joy at the end. We have a hunch Janet would approve.
The book opens up in Wendy's hometown of New York, New York—which is the kind of place singers sing about and directors film movies about. It's full of bustling people, cultural events, and busy subways. Wendy is used to this New York and comfortable here… but then 9/11 happens and the whole landscape changes. Suddenly, people are running around frantically and the subways are shut down. And worst of all, the New York skyline doesn't look the same anymore—the building where Wendy's mother worked is completely gone:
Wendy walked another block. From somewhere in a high-up window she could hear the same Madonna song that had been playing everywhere. From someplace else, the national anthem. A siren wailed. She turned another corner.
At first she couldn't understand what the shape was, spiking up into the night sky against the blue glare of the searchlights […] The giant finger was the base of her mother's building. Not the whole of it, but parts of a steel arch, twisted and broken off. Two stories high, maybe more. The only part left you could recognize. Only where the plaza used to be, where just last week Louie had practiced his skipping, there was nothing but a mountain of metal and dust. (3.278-280)
In the space of one morning, the New York Wendy knows and calls home is completely changed—and so is her life. The rubble in the place where the World Trade Center used to be is like the place in Wendy's family that her mother used to occupy: barren and destroyed.
When Wendy's thought about Garrett living in California in the past, she's always thought of him living somewhere woodsy and quaint—a place completely different from her home in New York City. Maybe that's why she wants to visit him so much: She thinks she will feel like she's in a completely foreign land. But the reality doesn't live up to her expectations when she comes to the little town of Davis, where Garrett lives:
When she pictured him in California, she'd imagined a little cabin off in the middle of a field, facing out at the ocean, with a sleeping loft and plants in macrame holders and crystals hanging in the window—like a picture she'd seen of a place where her parents had lived in upstate New York one summer when she was a baby. She imagined artworks all around, and the smell of incense and baking bread. But he lived in a regular house, with neighbors on both sides, and a couple of shrubs in front and a cement walkway leading up to the door. (13.2)
In fact, Davis seems perfectly mundane and suburban. But even so, the change in scenery lets Wendy live out her life without having to explain what happened to her mother all the time. Even though Davis looks like many other places Wendy has been to, it's different because none of the people here know her, so they won't feel sorry for her or talk about how tragic she is behind her back. In the end, it's not what the place looks like that matters; it's how Wendy feels there. And she feels like a whole new person while she's living with Garrett.
It's difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.
It's utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.
- Anne Frank, in her diary, July 15, 1944
This is fitting because The Usual Rules is all about surviving—and building a life—in the midst of great horror and tragedy. The epigraph states that though it's difficult to be optimistic in these times, "[…] when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more." This is exactly the kind of outlook Wendy has after her world comes crumbling down around her.
Even through the most trying times and most terrible grief, Wendy has hope that the world will get better. She soldiers on against the odds and somehow manages to build up a life and form new relationships even with all that's happened. Her spirit, like Anne Frank's, is resilient.
Although the language in The Usual Rules is pretty straightforward and simple, the writing style takes a little getting used to. Spoiler alert: There aren't any quotation marks in this sucker. And yeah, it's a little difficult to follow dialogue when there isn't any punctuation to set it apart from the rest of the story.
Adding to the toughness of this book is its subject matter, namely the tragedy and destruction of 9/11 and the emotional aftermath of having a parent killed in a terrorist attack. On top of that, the main character, Wendy, is going through adolescence, which means the book offers up a fair amount of musing about sex. Ooh la la.
The writing style of The Usual Rules is simple and never flowery—the narrator describes the things Wendy goes through as they happen, and shows her feelings (whether ugly or pretty) in a stark, truthful way. The writing style is so simple, in fact, that it eschews quotation marks for the dialogue, making the book read almost like one long stream of consciousness (except it isn't in the first person):
Sissy, he said. Is it true God sees everything.
I don't know, Louie. What do you think?
Then he'd be watching even when I poop.
He probably has more important things to do, Louie. There's a lot of people to keep track of. (16.9-12)
By getting rid of quotation marks and using the most unadorned language, the book allows the reader to take in the story in its most simple form—which is good, because the themes of the book are quite complex.
When Wendy moves to California, she soon meets Garrett's girlfriend Carolyn, who lives on a cactus farm. Carolyn immediately tells Wendy that she reminds her of a cactus—and that's why Carolyn likes her so much:
The thing about cacti, Carolyn had told her. They're tough little devils. They live on dirt mostly. It's harder than hell to kill a cactus. But just because they've got all these spines and they aren't likely to keel over and die doesn't mean they don't appreciate a little babying and know-how. They're tough, but they've got needs, just like every other living thing. You have to pay attention. (20.117)
Wendy is like a cactus herself because she's tough despite all the horrible things she's been through—she's survived her mother's death and the trauma of moving across the country and starting her life anew—but that doesn't mean that she's impervious to hurt. It might take a lot to knock her down, but she still needs a bit of gentleness and TLC.
Carolyn and Garrett both know Wendy is resilient and tough, but they also know she needs them to be waiting in the wings, ready to catch her if she falls. And that's just what they give her while she stays with them in California: a safe space where she can heal and find herself without too much interference. They take care of her like their own little cactus. And in the end, she starts to thrive.
When the book opens up, Wendy and her mother are in the middle of a fight because Wendy wants to go to California to visit her father, Garrett. Janet doesn't want Wendy to miss school, and Wendy thinks her mother is being mean and unreasonable and trying to stop her from getting to know her father.
Throughout the book, Wendy thinks back to this argument as something that separated her from her mother—something she regrets now that Janet is gone. But what she doesn't know is that she and Janet weren't really on opposite sides; before she died, her mother bought her a plane ticket and tucked it away as a present:
One more thing remained in the box. It was in an envelope. She opened it very slowly, undoing the top instead of ripping the paper, picturing her mother sealing it up all those months before. After this one last gift from her mother, there would be no more, ever.
Inside was a round-trip plane ticket, New York to Sacramento, with the dates left open.
"I shouldn't have given you such a hard time about this," she had written on the card. "A girl has every right to know her father." (34.35-37)
Excuse us while we tend to something in our eyes. Super touching, right? The last gift that Wendy gets from her mother is a kind of absolution for the fight they were having right before she died, enabling Wendy to finally move on, safe with the knowledge that her mother wasn't angry or disappointed in her at the very end. She was thinking of Wendy with complete love and understanding—and the airplane ticket proves it.
Poor little Louie is having an super hard time coping with Janet's death. In fact, he may be struggling more than anyone else in their family because he just doesn't understand why she won't return. He's too young to wrap his head around the permanence of death, and his belief in the possibility of his mom's return is most evident when he puts his faith in a "magic wand."
Louie goes to a show where a magician hands him a magic wand and says that it grants wishes. He decides to save the wish for his birthday because the magic will be stronger then (according to his little kid logic), and is devastated when the wand doesn't deliver on its promise:
It was the wand. She told him he should save it for his birthday. She told him if he was really good he might get his wish.
There was no need to ask what he'd wished for. (32.139-140)
The wand represents Louie's youth—and the way his mother's death comes to crush him emotionally over and over again. He doesn't just lose her once; he continues to lose her every time he's forced to confront that she won't be coming back again. Poor kid.
Although the story's told from a third person perspective, we get to see the inner workings of Wendy's mind—which is helpful, because so much of what she experiences is internal. Terrible things happen to Wendy and her family, yes, but a lot of her turmoil is silent. Because we can probe into Wendy's thoughts and emotions, we see how much she is suffering, plus we get to see memories she has of her mother from before she died, which helps us better understand the significance of her death. This is critical for giving us the full impact 9/11 has on Wendy and her life.
At the beginning of the book, we're introduced to our main character, Wendy, who's just an ordinary thirteen-year-old girl living in New York City with her mom, stepfather, and half-brother. She goes to school with her best friend, adores her little brother, and fights with her parents because, well, she's going through adolescence and that's just what happens then. On this particular September day, Wendy's been fighting with her mom because she wants to visit her biological dad in California and her mom doesn't think that she should miss school for it.
As Wendy huffs and puffs out the door to school, the stage is set: She's just your average teen, heading off to school on the heels of fighting with her mother.
This fight quickly loses its importance when Wendy gets to school and learns some seriously disturbing news: Two planes have flown into the World Trade Center—which happens to be where her mother works. In the days that follow September 11, Wendy and her stepfather Josh spend a lot of time putting up posters and looking for her mom, but their effort's in vain. In the meantime, Wendy's little brother Louie keeps having tantrums and doesn't seem to understand that their mother is probably dead.
The turning point in the plot comes when Wendy's biological father, Garrett, shows up to see her for the first time in years. He wants to take her back to California to live with him, and because her stepfather Josh seems so overwhelmed, Wendy decides to go. She moves all the way to the little town of Davis to live with her father, and she starts to get to know him and his life.
She meets his girlfriend, Carolyn, and settles into the town. Thing is, she doesn't exactly start going to school there. Instead, Wendy spends her time in this strange new place skipping school and wandering through Davis; sometimes she even takes the bus to Sacramento.
While Wendy is technically living with a parent, it's clear she's come unmoored. Will she get herself back on solid ground, or will she continue to flounder?
Slowly, Wendy starts healing emotionally and getting back to a new kind of normal in her California home. She surrounds herself with new friends, including Carolyn, a bookstore owner named Alan, and a troubled young mother named Violet. They all celebrate Christmas together at Garrett's house, and Wendy even makes out with a runaway named Todd who she's befriended. In the meantime, though, she keeps hearing from Josh that Louie isn't doing so well; he can't accept that his mother is really dead and keeps throwing tantrums.
Eventually, Wendy comes to realize that though it was the right thing for her to come to California, it's not her real home—Josh and Louie need her, and she tells Garrett this. He buys her a train ticket and Wendy takes the Amtrak train all the way across the country without even telling Josh and Louie first. When the story ends, Wendy has picked Louie up from school and taken him home. She's going to be there for her family at last, and she's ready to help them rebuild their lives together in New York City, no matter how hard it is.