Study Guide

The Usual Rules Identity

By Joyce Maynard


Your dad wanted to call you Sierra, her mother would begin, because you were conceived in the Sierra Mountains, on a camping trip. Trout fishing, naturally. But ever since I was a little girl, I always said if I had a daughter, I'd call her Wendy. (Prologue.2)

Wendy got her name from her mother's favorite book, Peter Pan, and they've watched the play together a million times. This love of the story and its magic is something they share.

But then she had started to wonder if it really was what she wanted most, to tap-dance in the back row now and then, nights when somebody in the company called in sick, living in her little one-room apartment, eating her soup alone […]

The pregnancy—discovered a few days after they returned from their camping trip—came as a surprise, but not bad news. What do you say we get married? Garrett had said. (Prologue.18)

Even though Janet wanted to be a professional dancer forever, she started to think about settling down and having a family—and becoming pregnant with Wendy just solidified that desire for her.

After her father left and they moved to their new apartment, Wendy's mother said she'd have to find a real job. She closed the Pocahontas Dancing School and sold her mirrors and let Wendy keep all the leftover costumes for dress-ups. She bought a suit and navy blue high heels and cut her hair short, and put Wendy in day care. (2.1)

Janet goes from being a carefree young woman who wants to be on Broadway to a responsible career woman and mother, and she never complains about having to make this change for the sake of her family. She only wishes Garrett would do the same.

I wish you wouldn't choose that picture to have up, Wendy had told her mother.

I don't need a picture to tell me how pretty you are, her mother said. What I like about this one is how strong you look, how determined you were that day. I look at this and I know you're going to be a survivor. (3.87-88)

Janet likes to have one picture of Wendy on display, and Wendy hates it because she doesn't look very pretty in it. But according to Janet, what defines Wendy isn't how pretty she is—it's how strong she is.

Who knew what a girl was supposed to look like who had a mother for thirteen years of her life and then all of a sudden one day she didn't. Now that she was that girl, she knew the answer. She looked just like anybody else. Same as the people looked normal on the flyers that had mostly fallen down by now. (7.7)

Wendy feels completely different on the inside after Janet dies, but on the outside she looks normal. It's hard for her to accept that she still appears to be a normal teenage girl to strangers instead of someone who is dealing with the biggest tragedy of her life.

What about school? I'd have to start in at a whole new place in the middle of the term. I wouldn't know anyone.

You could create a whole new identity, Amelia said. You might even be popular. (12.5-6)

Wendy is a little frightened by the idea of starting over at a whole new school, but Amelia convinces her it's an opportunity. By going to a new place, Wendy can be whoever she wants to be—no one will question her new identity.

Wendy could use a getaway. She could be anyone she wanted in California. Nobody would have to know anything. Not even that she came from New York, or what happened to her mother. She wouldn't have to go through every day with people giving her their sympathetic looks. (12.11)

What really seals the deal for Wendy is the idea that no one will have to know about her mother when she moves to California. She's sick and tired of kids at school talking about her like she's some kind of tragic case.

My mother doesn't like to tell her friends her son is just a carpenter, he said. I have a feeling she tells them I'm an architect. To me, the only shame in building houses is if you do it badly. (28.31)

Garrett isn't ashamed of who he is and what he does for a living, but his mother acts like it's something to hide. She wants her son to be more educated and do something fancier for a living even though that's not who he is inside.

The big surprise was this black woman that used to take care of your dad when he was little. She came all the way from Boston with her son and got there right in the middle of the service. It turned out your grandmother paid for the son's whole college education and now he teaches at some private school in New Hampshire. The man's mother got pretty emotional about your grandmother evidently. Called her the most generous woman she ever met.

Your father never even knew, Carolyn said.(29.22-23)

All this time Garrett has considered his mother a hard, unfeeling woman. But when he goes to her funeral, he finally sees a different side of her through the generosity that she showed to her employees. She did do some good deeds after all.

Did it ever occur to you? she asked. She spoke quietly, but she knew she was summoning her energy for the next. Did you ever for one moment consider the possibility that I might have some opinions about my life? (31.91)

Wendy knows that Josh and Garrett both want what's best for her, but she's sick and tired of people making decisions about her life. She's ready to have a say in what happens to her and who she is—and they can just sit down and listen up.