Friday, March 2, 2018


When Madeline Was Young
Jane Hamilton
Anchor Books

Ms. Hen happened to buy this book because she was in a bookstore, and she had heard of the author, and she liked the title. She read the description, and was intrigued by the story of the woman who became incapacitated and was treated like a daughter by her ex-husband and his new wife.

Madeline is a beautiful woman who suffered an accident in the 1940s. She was riding a bicycle with her husband, after they had been married for a year, and she falls and hits her head and become mentally challenged. Aaron, the husband, has an acquaintance who is studying nursing, so she comes to help them, and eventually Julia and Aaron get married, after he divorces Madeline. They treat her like a daughter, and they have two more children.

This novel is told from the point of view of Mac, Aaron and Julia’s son. He is a sensitive, smart boy who grows up to become a doctor. The novel revolves around the present day conversation between Diana, Mac’s wife, and Mac about whether or not he should go to his cousin Buddy’s son’s funeral. Mac doesn’t want to go, but Diana thinks he should out of family duty. Buddy was a rough young man, and Mac hasn’t seen him in a long time.

Ms. Hen thinks it’s interesting that Mac is the one who is telling the story. He is not the most important person in the book, and the choice to shape the novel around him is different. Ms. Hen thinks Mac is a great character, and she understands why he is telling the story, but she might have wanted to know what is happening in Madeline or Julia’s mind.

This novel is primarily a story about a family, dysfunctional in its own way. Mac muses that if Madeline had had her accident in the new millennium, she might have had access to better treatment and recovery. Relatives said that they thought Madeline should have been in a home, but Julia would not hear of that. They handle her like a perpetual little girl, which may have stunted her growth, if she could have had any. In the 1940s and 50s, not much was known about the right way to treat the disabled. Many people stayed at home with their parents, and were not given the type of education and therapy that is given today.

Ms. Hen enjoyed this novel, even though it is very slow. It is not a loud novel; it is quiet and calming. There is fighting and sex, but even so, the noise level does not go up. Ms. Hen took her time reading WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG.  It is not a novel that a reader plows through, but rather wades through, gently.

There are some chickens in this novel, and they are mostly food. One of Ms. Hen favorites is when Mac and his family visit Buddy, “He was eating a pile of barbecue chicken wings and drinking a beer, nodding occasionally.” Ms. Hen likes this because it is a visceral scene, a man in his backyard after his son’s funeral eating chicken wings.

Ms. Hen enjoyed this novel. It is complicated and strange, and the characters are compelling. They are different from the people Ms. Hen knows, and getting to know strangers and getting in their heads and learning their particular pain is the purpose of fiction.

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