When Madeline Was Young
Jane Hamilton, 2006
Jane Hamilton, award-winning author of The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World, is back in top form with a richly textured novel about a tragic accident and its effects on two generations of a family.
When Aaron Maciver’s beautiful young wife, Madeline, suffers brain damage in a bike accident, she is left with the intellectual powers of a six-year-old. In the years that follow, Aaron and his second wife care for Madeline with deep tenderness and devotion as they raise two children of their own.
Narrated by Aaron's son, Mac, When Madeline Was Young chronicles the Maciver family through the decades, from Mac’s childhood growing up with Madeline and his cousin Buddy in Wisconsin through the Vietnam War, through Mac’s years as a husband with children of his own, and through Buddy’s involvement with the subsequent Gulf Wars.
Jane Hamilton, with her usual humor and keen observations of human relationships, deftly explores the Maciver's unusual situation and examines notions of childhood (through Mac and Buddy’s actual youth as well as Madeline’s infantilization) and a rivalry between Buddy’s and Mac’s families that spans decades and various wars. She captures the pleasures and frustrations of marriage and family, and she exposes the role that past relationships, rivalries, and regrets inevitably play in the lives of adults.
Inspired in part by Elizabeth Spencer’s Light in the Piazza, Hamilton offers an honest and exquisite portrait of how a family tragedy forever shapes and alters the boundaries of love. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—July 13, 1957
• Reared—Oak Park, Illinois, USA
• Education—B.B., Carleton College
• Awards—Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, 1988
• Currently—lives in Rochester, Wisconsin
Her first published works were short stories, "My Own Earth" and "Aunt Marj's Happy Ending", both published in Harper's Magazine in 1983. "Aunt Marj's Happy Ending" later appeared in The Best American Short Stories 1984.
Her first novel, The Book of Ruth, was published in 1988 and won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and the Wisconsin Library Association Banta Book Award in 1989. The Book of Ruth was an Oprah's Book Club selection in 1996, and it was the basis for a 2004 television film of the same title.
In 1994, she published A Map of the World, which was adapted for a film in 1999 and, the same year, was also an Oprah's Book Club selection. Her third novel, The Short History of a Prince, published in 1998, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1998. This book was also shortlisted for the 1999 Orange Prize. In 2000, Hamilton was named a Notable Wisconsin Author by the Wisconsin Library Association.
All of her books are set, at least in part, in Wisconsin.
In an interview with the Journal Times in Racine, Wisconsin, in November 2006, Hamilton talked about her early inspiration for writing novels. As a student at Carleton College, she overheard a professor say she would write a novel one day. Hamilton had written only two short stories for the professor's class. Overhearing the conversation gave her confidence. "It had a lot more potency, the fact that I overheard it, rather than his telling me directly," she said. (From Wikipedia.)
An unusual menage poses moral questions in this fifth novel (after Disobedience) from Hamilton, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for The Book of Ruth. Aaron and Julia Maciver are living in a 1950s Chicago suburb with their two children and with Aaron's first wife, Madeline. Aaron has insisted on caring for Madeline after she suffered a brain injury soon after their wedding, leaving her with the mental capacity of a seven-year-old. Refusing to consider this arrangement inconvenient, Julia treats the often-demanding Madeline like a beloved daughter, even letting her snuggle in bed with Aaron and herself when Madeline becomes distraught at night. Decades later, the Macivers' son, Mac, now a middle-aged family practitioner with a wife and teenage daughters, prepares to attend the funeral of his estranged cousin's son, killed in Iraq, and muses about the meaning, and the emotional costs, of the liberal values of his parents. Hamilton brings characteristic empathy to the complex issues at the core of this patiently built novel, but the narrative doesn't take any clear direction. Though Mac suggests there are "gothic possibilities" in his parents' story (partly inspired, Hamilton says, by Elizabeth Spencer's The Light in the Piazza), the Macivers' passions remain tepid and unresolved, and Julia remains an enigma to her son.
As in her previous novels (e.g., A Map of the World), Hamilton sets her latest work in her native Midwest. Pragmatic, smart, and sensitive Timothy "Mac" Maciver, a married physician with three daughters, tells the story of his family and upbringing in suburban Chicago and how a tragedy that disrupted his father's first marriage impacted all their lives. Mac's first-person narrative moves back and forth in time and highlights his parents' relationship as well as his own relationship with Madeline, the woman known as his much older "sister," whose life was derailed at the age of 25. Mac focuses with refreshing candor on his shifting responsibilities concerning Madeline as well as on what it was like to be a young man witnessing the escalating Vietnam War and its triggering of family debates and tension. Hamilton draws a parallel between the Vietnam conflict and the current war in Iraq (Mac's cousin, a career military man, has a son who enlists to fight in Iraq). While Hamilton gives the political climate of the Sixties considerable attention, her story is more about how people, by bonding together, can transcend tragedy and loss with love, tolerance, and humor. Recommended for all fiction collections. —Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L.
The narrator of Jane Hamilton's fifth novel (Disobedience, 2000, etc.) is Timothy "Mac" Maciver, a brilliant, scientifically minded fellow growing up in a big Midwestern family, whom we follow from his boyhood in the 1950s to his middle age in the present day. Mac gradually becomes aware that his beautiful blonde adult "sister" is in fact his father's first wife, Madeline, impaired after a head injury, and lovingly cared for by his father's second wife, Mac's mother, Julia. Mac's dad is a curator at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History; Julia—faintly reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt—is homely, principled and awkward, a promoter of social good. One summer her household includes her own brilliant children: Mac, busily dissecting a chimpanzee brought home by his father; his sister Lu, a dedicated cellist; two black teenagers Julia "rescued" from the ghetto, ill-at-ease and bored stiff in the suburbs; and Madeline. Stirred into this mix is Mac's slightly older and much admired cousin Buddy—a catalyst, hero and beloved black sheep. Physically and socially adept in a way that Mac envies, Buddy immediately puts the family's African-American houseguests at ease. And he not only breaks the nose of a neighbor kid who cruelly takes advantage of Madeline and tries to make a sexual show of her, he conceals the reason for the fight to protect her, and takes the blame. The narrative does not progress rapidly or linearly—it radiates in all directions like a spider's web. The web of connection is perhaps strongest at the most painful moments. Hamilton is exquisitely observant and unfailingly generous to the characters she creates: every life has weight and dignity.
1. What aspects of youth are expressed in the novel’s title? Was it wrong, as Figgy believes, to give Madeline the trappings of a little girl?
2. How did Figgy and Julia each define the ideal mother, the ideal wife, and the ideal life in general?
3. How would you describe the narrator’s tone as he guides us through his unusual family history? How does Mac (Timothy) resolve the knowledge that Madeline’s accident made it possible for him to be born?
4. Mac shares many nostalgic memories of his neighborhood, alongside wry observations about contemporary youth who spout pop psychology. How does Mac’s life as a husband and father compare to the family in which he was raised? What has been gained and lost in his family through these three generations?
5. What accounts for Julia’s tireless patience with Madeline? Would Madeline have done the same for Julia if the circumstances had been reversed? What drew Timothy’s father to two such seemingly different women?
6. We know from the beginning that the Macivers are wealthy (“We were all proud to have an estate...the fruit of our dead grandfather’s labor,” Mac says in the novel’s second paragraph). How does Mac feel about money? What does When Madeline Was Young illustrate about the concept of charity?
7. What does Mac tell us, particularly during his tour of Russia’s world after her husband’s murder, about his opinions regarding poverty and race and class? Is his sister correct in viewing Russia as a slave? Was his mother unrealistic? What did he learn from the summer with Cleveland and his sister?
8. Near the end of chapter six, Mac repeats lines from William Wordsworth while watching Madeline poolside. “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways” ends with these lines: “She lived unknown, and few could know/When Lucy ceased to be;/But she is in her grave, and, oh/The difference to me!” Does this poem capture the essence of Madeline’s interactions with men, or is the poem an ironic choice?
9. Should Mikey and Madeline have been allowed to marry? Which are the most and least genuine relationships described in the novel?
10. The Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam form the historical backdrop for much of the novel. What tone is set as Mac weaves Madeline’s story with his recollections of this turbulent time period? What was different about the undercurrent of war when the family gathered for the funeral of Buddy’s son, Kyle?
11. Mac shares his father’s enthusiasm for natural history. How does Mac’s fascination with the natural world and anatomy shape his understanding of Madeline’s injuries? Is his approach to life clinical?
12. How did your impressions of Buddy shift throughout the novel? Did Buddy “rescue” Madeline from Jerry in chapter ten? Why does Mac not see him as heroic, contrary to Russia’s point of view?
13. In chapter fifteen, why does Mac so badly want Madeline to remember the boy she encountered when she was in Italy years ago?
14. What did Buddy and Mac resolve during their brawl in the novel’s final chapter?
15. Jane Hamilton credits Elizabeth Spencer’s novella The Light in the Piazza for partially inspiring When Madeline Was Young. If you have read the novella, or seen its 1962 film version (starring Olivia de Havilland), or been in the audience for the award-winning musical, share your experience with the other members of your book group. What might Madeline and Clara have thought of each other? What extreme differences exist between the matriarchs? In what way do the authors portray opposite forms of love?
16. The epigraph emphasizes physical beauty as they key to being captivating. Is Madeline empowered by looks that match conventional definitions of beauty, or does her beauty make her a victim? What might her fate have been had she looked more like Julia (without the girdle)?
17. What unusual tales distinguish your family history? Do you have a relative who, as Madeline did for Mac, played an unconventional role in your development?
18. Each of Jane Hamilton’s novels is unique; this originality is itself her hallmark.
Discuss her previous works in the context of When Madeline Was Young. What are the conflicts and intensities that drive her diverse cast of characters?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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