Doubleday, 2007, $13.95
Jane Hamilton’s first novel, The Book of Ruth, won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and her second, A Map of the World, was a New York Times notable book of the year. Little wonder that more than a decade ago, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed that, “Jane Hamilton has removed all doubt that she belongs among the major writers of our time.”
Hamilton’s latest novel, When Madeline Was Young, is a bit harder to love. She sets the book in Wisconsin, where her narrator, a doctor named Mac Maciver, is blessed and burdened with a wealth of family drama to explore and explain. At the center of his experience is an unusual tragedy: In 1943, Mac’s father, Aaron, married Madeline, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a bike accident soon after their wedding. Aaron chooses to care for the brain-damaged woman in his home, then subsequently marries her nurse, Julia, Mac’s mother. Madeline remains with the family, a woman-child, for the rest of her life.
“My father went out for a bike ride with his wife and sometime later brought home from the hospital a twenty-five-year old woman who would forever have the intellectual powers of a seven-year-old,” Mac reveals early in the novel. “A fine tale with gothic possibilities....” Trying to comprehend this tragedy and the way it shaped his family becomes Mac’s central concern, while Hamilton’s main interest lies in understanding Mac’s life as he sorts through the varieties of grief and love he has witnessed.
Madeline becomes an emotional black hole for the Maciver family, and we receive impressions of her filtered through the prisms of their myriad individual sensitivities. Buddy, Mac’s macho cousin, sees Madeline as someone Mac could “feel up,” because she isn’t a blood relation. Mac’s mother, Julia, treats her as an artistically gifted child, while his father offers more stoical acceptance than revelation.
When Madeline Was Young, originally released in 2006 and now being released in paperback, dutifully assembles all the characters you usually need for a family saga to inhabit the heart, yet the novel fails to establish an intimate connection. Again and again, Mac tries to weave his memories into a significant fabric, but his convoluted efforts are frustrating and his medical jargon often obtuse. He strikes one as more ideal than real, more Hamilton’s mouthpiece than his own man. Likewise, many of the period scenes and details feel artificial. Mac’s Uncle Arthur and Aunt Figgie are cast as political players throughout the era of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Rock lyrics pop out of the mouth of Madeline’s brain-damaged boyfriend, Mikey, who provides the story with a kind of mindless straight talk that seems out of place.
Mac, Aaron, and Julia stitch a protective quilt for Madeline as the world around them fractures into turmoil. Ultimately, this book asks us to believe that the Maciver family is good to the bone, and that’s far too simple. Should I expect great writers to always write great books? Perhaps not. When Madeline Was Young is conceptually imaginative and potentially haunting, yet Madeline’s unique world failed to materialize in that ethereal transit zone between page and heart. Hamilton is reading at the New York State Writers Institute on September 18; perhaps then she will spark the connection I hoped her book would make.