When Madeline Was Young (Hamilton)

Book Reviews
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.
Publishers Weekly

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.
Library Journal

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.
Kirkus Reviews

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