Sunday, February 26, 2012

When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton



The day Aaron Maciver’s beautiful, glamorous young bride, Madeline went for a bicycle ride and crashed into a stone wall changed both their lives forever. The woman who came back to him had the mental capacity of a seven-year-old child. This was 1937 and little could be done for catastrophic brain injuries. Instead of putting Madeline away in an institution, Aaron did his best to make her life comfortable, giving her a little girl’s dream room with a frilly canopied bed and vanity table and shelves of toys, dolls, and paint sets. At the recommendation of doctors, “to make Mrs. Maciver’s life easier” Madeline was also given a hysterectomy. And when Aaron fell in love with Julia Beeson, the nurse who became one of Madeline’s in-home caregivers, Aaron quietly obtained a divorce and the newlywed couple decided on a unique domestic arrangement—they would keep Madeline and “raise” her alongside the children they would have.

Told from the viewpoint of the couple’s son, Buddy, written as a memoir at the start of the 21st century when he is a middle-aged man with a wife and grown children of his own, this novel reminisces about what life was like growing up with Madeline, a perpetual child trapped inside a woman’s aging body. Sometimes she was as docile as a lamb, playing games with the neighborhood children. She spent hours painstakingly putting together her outfits; not even a catastrophic brain injury could diminish Madeline’s love of fashion, she retained her sense of style, poured over fashion magazines, and with her silky blonde hair people described her as “a real Princess Grace”). And at other times she was a true enfant terrible, biting and raging. Buddy’s narrative also chronicles Madeline’s romance with Mikey O’Day, whose brain was like her own rendered childlike, in his case by a bout of meningitis when he was a baby. Mikey is a colorful character who in summer performs three nights a week singing popular songs at the Dari-Dip, the local ice cream shop, and waking the neighborhood up at the crack of dawn playing his drum set, and woos Madeline by coming over to her house to play his records and taking her along with him on his weekly jaunts to the local record shop.

I enjoyed this book, amongst the many novels about families, rather they be dysfunctional, disintegrating, or caught up in some sort of crisis or drama, this one stood out as unusual; a portrait of a family doing their best to do the right thing and making lemonade from the lemons life gave them. It also reminded me of one of my favorite movies and short stories, The Light From The Piazza, which was indeed one of the author’s inspirations, to which she pays homage by describing Madeline’s trip to Italy before her accident and her encounter with a handsome young man on a motorcycle, and another visit in Madeline’s twilight years to attend a family wedding. If you’re tired of the typical novels written about families, I recommend you give this one a try.



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