When Madeline Was Young

    Jane Hamilton’s novels tend to be, for lack of a better term, chick books. Exploring the depths of interpersonal relationships and the feeeeelings they cause, her previous works (A Map of the World and The Book of Ruth, to name two) tend to run a bit long, with soul-exposing looks at characters who turn off a lot of readers who are looking for a more plot-driven story. Although Hamilton’s work has been praised by the New York Times Book Review, and made it onto Oprah’s Book Club, I was always a bit put off by the slow-burning quality of her stories. Frankly, they bored me.

    Which is why I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of Hamilton’s latest endeavor, When Madeline Was Young. The book follows the unconventional Maciver family through several decades, opening with the narration of Mac, the only son of the family who grows up to be a doctor. He speaks of discovering in his teens that his older “sister” Madeline is actually his father’s first wife, rendered childlike by a bicycle accident when the two were newlyweds. Aaron Maciver, the family patriarch, and Mac’s mother, Julia, Madeline’s former nurse, take on the roles of Madeline’s caretakers.

    Madeline shows a great deal of resistance to this arrangement at first, somehow knowing that her husband has been taken from her, but after time, Madeline starts to warm up to Julia. When the children are born, Madeline tries to claim them as her own, perhaps in an attempt to try to recreate the life she was once so close to having.

    Madeline’s condition is somewhat complicated by the fact that she is a great beauty, but has the mental state of a second-grader. The Macivers perhaps make that situation worse by purposefully infantilizing Madeline, giving her dolls to play with and a child’s bedroom. When she feels romantic feelings for another mentally handicapped person in town, no one knows quite what to make of the relationship.

    Mac’s relationship with Madeline is as complex as you’d expect something of that nature to be. He resents her, pities her, tries to protect her and be a “good brother” even though he’s always known that something isn’t normal about their relationship. When, on vacation at his family’s large lakeside estate, his cousin Buddy tells him the truth about Madeline, what he’s always known comes as a bit of a shock to him, and the changing thoughts about what family means serve to shape Mac’s life from then on.

    As much as the book is about Madeline, it’s also very much about Mac’s life growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, trying to become a man amidst the Vietnam War, the politics of the era, and the death of innocence in a world that was rapidly changing. Hamilton deftly handles the details of this transformation, making Mac’s life and struggles seem very real and genuine.

    Okay, so it’s still totally a chick book, even though the protagonist is male. Mac’s perspective, looking back in time as a middle-aged, small-town doctor, certainly works in the framework of this type of novel.

    Hamilton still tends to focus more on the atmosphere and the internal landscape than on actual plot, and it is just as frustrating in this book as in any of her others. It is possible to craft a story, even a “chick book,” without putting hazy memory-tinged light around everything, without infusing each chapter with some sort of folksy good sense and old-time morals. This book feels like it’s set in the South, even though it isn’t. It feels slowed-down and stretched-out, and the characters can seem a bit hollow for all that.

    Still, this was an enjoyable read and a decent story. I guess what’s most unsatisfying about When Madeline Was Young is that I strongly suspect I won’t have much recollection of the novel in a few months. Nothing about it stands out or creates a lasting impression. As a novel, it’s very nice, but I look for a bit more from my books. I give it a B-.