Study Guide

The Usual Rules Family

By Joyce Maynard


Back when her mother first introduced her to Josh, she meant to hate him. She was only seven then. She'd seen a video at Amelia's house around that time, called Parent Trap, where a couple of twins whose parents were divorced decided to get them back together, and it worked. Even though Wendy didn't have a twin like the girls in the movie, that was her plan. (1.63)

At first, Wendy is the stereotypical stepdaughter who's determined to make Josh's life difficult. Thing is, she can't keep it up because Josh is so nice to her. He treats her like she's actually his daughter, and Wendy needs that in her life.

They were at Dreamland when he told her about wanting to get married to her mom. I could understand if you aren't too thrilled, he said. I know you've got a dad, and it's understandable that you'd like it a whole lot better if he was with your mother instead of me. But I promise I'll try hard to make her happy. And I'll teach you every single thing you ever wanted to know about jazz. (1.65)

Josh doesn't ignore Wendy or leave her out of the relationship he has with her mother—instead he consults her about marrying her mom and promises that while he'll never try to replace Garrett, he will always take care of her.

Lost without her. Her mom and Josh, wandering in a forest like Hansel and Gretel, but with Louie in the front-pack. Calling out, Wendy, Wendy, where are you? We're lost without you.

Of all the things I ever got to do, she told her mother on the way home, being a big sister is my favorite. (9.30-31)

Despite what everyone else says about siblings hating each other, Wendy is completely in love with Louie as soon as she sees his pink little baby face. She takes to being a big sister like a duck to water.

Times like that, Wendy never said he wasn't really her father. Same as she never called Louie her half brother. Somebody else did now and then—Aunt Pam, for instance. (9.45)

No matter what anyone else says, Wendy considers Josh and Louie her "real" family. They're the family that she's grown up with and loves; they're the people she sees every morning when she wakes up. That's what family really is made up of.

I'd never get into all that legal bulls***, but if we did, your stepfather wouldn't have a leg to stand on. All that would happen is he'd spend a lot of money for nothing, because if I know your grandmother, she wouldn't quit. You should have seen what she was like when she took my father to court, when I was your age. (11.38)

Instead of telling Wendy that he wants her to come live with her because he loves her and wants to be a good father, Garrett starts talking about the legality of things. It's all very unemotional and not very fatherly.

And don't you imagine we'd miss you? His voice caught. We've still got a family here. Even if one person's missing.

I don't know what to do, she said. I don't want to go, but he said he knew what was best for me. He said he's the one parent I have left.

The one parent, huh? What do you call me? (11.89-91)

Poor Josh. He's pretty hurt when Wendy says that she might go live with Garrett—and even more so when she calls Garrett her "one parent" she has left. She still has Josh, and he loves her like a real father. He always has, and he always will.

You know you're my only brother in the whole world, right? she said. And who's your only sister?

You. They'd been through this before.

And even if I'm not around, you know how much I love you, right? (12.32-34)

It's pretty tough for Wendy to help Louie understand that she's going away for a while but will still be his sister and still be in his life. After all, he's just lost his mother—that's a lot of change for a little guy to take in.

We had different ideas about a lot of things, he said. She was more the type to want to settle down and make a home. I never believed in traditional family structures. It always seemed to me like most people's problems start with their parents. I wanted things to be a little looser, hands-off. Like the whole world was your home, instead of just one place. (13.28)

Garrett and Janet split because they had such different ideas on how to raise a family and how to create a home for Wendy. In the end, Garrett left them because he didn't know how to provide the stability that Janet needed. It was too hard for him.

Sometime back, more than a year maybe, her mother brought up the idea of Josh formally adopting her. We haven't seen Garrett in a couple of years, she said to Josh. Just one crummy visit from his mother that time, to eat cucumber sandwiches and find out if I've made plans yet for Wendy's coming-out party. (19.107)

Although Garrett hasn't visited Wendy in years, she still bristles when her mother talks about Josh formally adopting her. She feels like her mom is trying to erase her biological dad from her life and create this happy little story where their family has always consisted of Janet, Josh, Wendy, and Louie.

You have a great family, he said.

It wasn't exactly the one I started out with, she said. Or who I thought I'd be spending Christmas with.

Me neither. (29.198-200)

Before this, Wendy never imagined she'd spend Christmas with anyone but her usual family members—by which we mean her mother, Josh, and Louie. But now she's in Davis and celebrating with her new family and friends… and it's not so bad. It's just surprising, that's all.