Published by Custom House on May 11, 2021
Genres: Alternative Family, American, Coming of Age, Family & Relationships, Fiction
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"Almost Famous" meets Daisy Jones and the Six in this funny, wise, and tender novel about a fourteen-year-old girl’s coming of age in 1970s Baltimore, caught between her strait-laced family and the progressive family she nannies for—who happen to be secretly hiding a famous rock star and his movie star wife for the summer.
In 1970s Baltimore, fourteen-year-old Mary Jane loves cooking with her mother, singing in her church choir, and enjoying her family’s subscription to the Broadway Show Tunes of the Month record club. Shy, quiet, and bookish, she’s glad when she lands a summer job as a nanny for the daughter of a local doctor. A respectable job, Mary Jane’s mother says. In a respectable house.
The house may look respectable on the outside, but inside it’s a literal and figurative mess: clutter on every surface, IMPEACHMENT: Now More Than Ever bumper stickers on the doors, cereal and takeout for dinner. And even more troublesome (were Mary Jane’s mother to know, which she does not): The doctor is a psychiatrist who has cleared his summer for one important job—helping a famous rock star dry out. A week after Mary Jane starts, the rock star and his movie star wife move in.
Over the course of the summer, Mary Jane introduces her new household to crisply ironed clothes and a family dinner schedule, and has a front-row seat to a liberal world of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll (not to mention group therapy). Caught between the lifestyle she’s always known and the future she’s only just realized is possible, Mary Jane will arrive at September with a new idea about what she wants out of life, and what kind of person she’s going to be.
I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
It’s Summer, 1975, in a post-Watergate America. The Vietnam War has just ended, The Rocky Horror Picture Show debuts on Broadway, and the release of Jaws heralds the birth of the modern blockbuster. However, none of this has impacted one quiet household in suburban Roland Park, Baltimore. The respectable and proper household of Mr Dillard, his devoted wife and good-natured daughter Mary Jane is still very much caught twenty years in the past. The trials, tribulations and excitement of a country at the beginning of a cultural rebirth mean nothing within their four walls. As long as dinner is on the table, and grace is said (including prayers for President Ford) then all is right with the world.
But when Mary Jane gets a summer nannying job working for a nearby Doctor and his family, that closed-off, conforming world starts to look more like an oppressive prison. As Mary Jane gets more involved in the day-to-day lives of the Cone family she discovers that there’s more to her than becoming a clone of her mother.
As coming-of-age novels go, Mary Jane doesn’t veer too far from the predictable scenario: teen girl discovers how the other half lives – girl rebels – girl has awakening – there’s a hiccup – happy ending. The joy of this novel is how Blau constructs the world around Mary Jane. Stark contrasts fill the opening chapters as we experience the open, accepting household of the Cones and compare it with the bigoted, judgemental and snobbish Dillards. One central plot point is that Mary Jane is only allowed to work this job because it’s a doctor’s family. Unbeknownst to her mum, Dr Cone is a psychiatrist, still frowned upon by ‘respectable’ society. Even worse, especially as far as her father is concerned, the family is Jewish. The prejudice that Mary Jane’s parents show towards the Cones will make your skin crawl (as will their comments on Black people) but it is used well by Blau to serve as the total antithesis to the loving Cones.
Soon, Mary Jane has to begin to lie to her parents about how the Cones live their lives, but the situation gets even trickier when Dr Cone’s latest client arrives at the house and then moves in. Jimmy, a huge rock star with an even huger heroin addiction and his superstar wife Sheba move in to enable private and secure treatment for his new patient. Within a few days, their presence begins to make an impact not only on the Cone household but also on Mary Jane. Enamoured by Sheba and fixated on Jimmy (especially his physicality) she’s initially anxious about what will occur during their stay. Focusing her attention on the Cone’s daughter Izzy seems to give Mary Jane the focus she needs to survive this strange household.
However, the more her own family belittle the Cones the more Mary Jane begins to see them in a new light. Rapidly, she begins to see them as family and their use of affection, warmth and genuine compliments add to this every day. In her new role as the cook, nanny, cleaner and organiser (the Cones are a bit of a nightmare on all fronts) Mary Jane starts to see sides to all in the house that she never expected, and with this comes new experiences. The biggest driving force behind this is the bundle of energy that is Izzy, the focal point of Mary Jane’s affections and concerns. Everything she does is with Izzy in mind, even the lies she starts to tell her parents to enable more time with her. Eventually, Mary Jane must face up to the situation but risks losing everything she’s discovered.
This is where Blau truly shines as an author. Mary Jane as a character is a joy to read. Her internal monologues feel realistic; confused and anxious one minute, determined and resourceful the next. Her heart is huge and seems to have room for everyone. There’s not a moment that goes by where she isn’t considering the thoughts and feelings of others. The moments with her mum where she empathises with her are emotional and inspiring in equal measure. Rarely have I come across a teen protagonist so rounded and complete.
Her partner in crime Izzy must have been a hard character to create, and in other hands, she would have come across as annoying most of the time, but not here. Izzy overflows with innocence and wonder, but still conveys the type of smarts you’d expect from the child of progressive, intelligent parents. The two mums in Mary Jane’s life couldn’t be further apart but they still mirror each other cleverly. Very often, authors approach the idea of progressive and submissive wives without looking further than stereotypes and cliches but Blau injects warmth into both women (even if not immediately evident in Mary Jane’s mum) that comparisons between the two are easy to draw upon.
Sheba and Jimmy are a delight, and if you know your 70’s music and film culture it’s not hard to see who they are based upon, but I won’t say here as it will spoil a great throwaway at the end of the novel. Jimmy is a tad one-note and unfortunately, his affection towards Mary Jane did leave me with a constant fear of ‘Oh God please don’t go THERE’ while reading. (Fear not reader. It doesn’t). But Sheba is a delight. Funny, deep, brutally honest and incredibly affectionate, it’s her who resonates the most with Mary Jane and has the biggest impact. Sheba’s own childhood mirrors that of Mary Jane’s. Using her own childhood pain and trauma to wake Mary Jane up to the opportunities that await her, Sheba guides her through her awakening. The patriarchs of each family come off the worst here, merely acting as a device to push the plot.
All throughout Mary Jane, the atmosphere screamed 70s America. From the descriptions of clothing to the music, neighbourhood settings, food (oh God – Mary Jane’s mum and her ‘cooking’) and music, it couldn’t have been set in any other time. That doesn’t mean you have to be of a certain age to appreciate the setting as Blau never includes anything that isn’t in the common cultural psyche. I genuinely don’t think this novel would have worked in any other time period. Blau uses the gulf between the inhibited, stuck Dillards (so close to Dullards – I love it) and the progressive Cones to emphasise the cultural gaps that were widening between the WW2 generation and the baby boomers. Expression and free thought were things to be feared, and Blau highlights this perfectly in the thoughts of Mary Janes parents.
There are moments in this book that took my breath away. From uplifting segments in Mary Jane’s church as she sings, to Sheba’s monologue about how it feels to be alive, I could quote this novel for months and never repeat myself. Occasionally you may find yourself questioning the actions of the Cones et al around children as they stray towards problematic territory, but it’s handy to keep the era in mind. That’s not an excuse, just realism.
Mary Jane is an incredible coming of age story that never deviates into a schmaltzy, romanticised version of 70s America. Blau makes no bones about the neglectful attitudes of the Cones towards Izzy, but it never feels intentional. Their overwhelming love and adoration not only for their daughter but anyone who comes into their lives reflects more on them than any tidy, prim house ever could. The novel has a satisfactory conclusion which gives the characters a lovely authentic ending to their journey and will leave you with a massive smile.
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