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When Madeline Was Youngby Jane Hamilton
Synopses & Reviews
When Aaron Maciver's beautiful young wife, Madeline, suffers brain damage in a bike accident, she is left with the intellectual powers of a seven-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 in Wisconsin with Madeline and his cousin Buddy, through the Vietnam War, his years as a husband with children of his own, and his cousin's involvement in the subsequent Gulf Wars. Jane Hamilton, with not only her usual keen observations of human relationships but also her humor, deftly explores the Macivers' unusual situation as she 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 exposes the role that past relationships, rivalries, and regrets inevitably play in the lives of adults.
Inspired in part by Elizabeth Spencer's The Light in the Piazza, Hamilton offers an honest, exquisite portrait of how a family tragedy forever shapes and alters the boundaries of love.
"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 (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Writers and readers, like rubbernecking drivers, are drawn to stories of misdeeds. Peril makes a plot interesting, and the ugly thrill of disaster is hard to resist. Yet the more difficult and perhaps more humane task is to locate the drama of the well-lived life, the mystery of the human soul inclined toward the theological notion of caritas, the Latin word meaning charitable kindness toward... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) others. In her beautiful new novel, 'When Madeline Was Young,' Jane Hamilton has created a story that goes to the heart of the mystery of caritas, and she has revealed in the apparently flat line of a good life a vital and absorbing human drama. Injured in a bicycle accident shortly after her marriage to Aaron Maciver in 1943, the Madeline of the title becomes the brain-damaged ward of her young husband and, eventually, of his second wife, Julia, who nurses her in the early days of her recovery. The newlyweds enfold Madeline into their lives with remarkable grace and go on to have two children of their own. Louise and her brother Mac, who narrates this story, grow up in a household distinguished by its example of saintly patience. Madeline is the oldest 'child' in the family, the one who never grows up at all. Hamilton has been praised for her earlier novels, especially 'A Map of the World' and 'The Book of Ruth,' but 'When Madeline Was Young' is her most distinguished work so far, a story in which tragedy is balanced brilliantly against the consolations and pleasures of ordinary life. The tragedy of Madeline's life occupies center stage, and its appalling fact — Madeline sitting 'stolidly' across from her former husband at the breakfast table day after day, a 'ghost of that future' — is always present. Yet often Madeline is like a statue in the center of a public square that gazes unseeing across the life at its feet; Hamilton's true interest is Mac's life, his effort to understand his parents' lives, their love for Madeline, for each other, for their children and the world in which they see themselves as modest and fortunate participants. Hamilton never suggests that caring for Madeline is easy, only that the Macivers are endlessly kind to her. Mac's description of life with Madeline — her temper tantrums, her refusal, like a recalcitrant toddler, to sleep alone, her lack of inhibition, especially distressing to an adolescent boy — is wretchedly and painfully drawn. Aaron and Julia's sacrifice might seem almost too heroic to be believed, but Hamilton wisely places doubters in the novel. Aaron's sister, Figgy, especially after a highball or two, can hardly contain her spleen over the situation. 'They were sweet to her in a way that made you want to puke,' she vents to the adult Mac, complaining about Aaron's wry affability, Julia's liberal tolerance. Mac's cousin Buddy, Figgy's son, is Mac's opposite, as outrageous and full of anger and bravura as Mac is restrained and ambivalent, a career military man to Mac's small-town physician. Against the cynical, experienced voices of Figgy and Buddy, against even his own doubt, Mac must weigh his private contemplation of his parents' choices and his ultimate conclusions about their lives and his own. 'I know it sounds unlikely,' he acknowledges to his wife, 'their contentment.' But in the end he is certain of what his parents, and indeed Madeline herself, bequeathed to him. 'I owed my sensibility, my own faith in goodness, to the texture of our family life,' he concludes, 'the warmth that my parents radiated to all of us and each other.' Like Marilynne Robinson's 'Gilead,' the deceptively quiet-sounding ruminations of a dying preacher that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, 'When Madeline Was Young' contemplates human nature not through its worst incarnations but through its best, and the experience is utterly elevating and joyful, a long spiritual drink in a parched landscape. The trick to making a portrait of goodness dramatic is not that it is unequivocal but that it is detailed. Hamilton understands human nature as a dynamic force between generosity and selfishness, and her portraits of these characters — Julia and Aaron, and even Mac's own decent example — possess enormous definition and dimension. Mac understands that the story of his parents' marriage has been always 'visible,' and it is this story's 'visibility' — the gorgeous sweep of detail with which Hamilton paints her scenes, her wonderful instinct for the telling moment — that is its triumph. Hamilton revels in what can be seen at the novelist's close range. She evokes the leafy streets of post-World War II suburbia, where mothers ring their dinner bells at dusk to call home the children, and the rambling, informal grandeur of an old-fashioned family compound on a Wisconsin lake, the sleeping porches in the big house strung with cotton hammocks, the kerosene smoke-stained walls in the boathouse where the boy cousins bunk down at night in a fug of sweat and hormonal longing. Every place in the novel, every character, is rendered with intelligent, often ravishing care: the national angst of the Vietnam War that hovers over the story, the complex relationship between a black woman and the white family she works for, the difficult and bittersweet symbiosis between a disabled person and her caretakers. 'It is reverent attention to this world that teaches us, and teaches us again,' Marilynne Robinson once wrote, 'the imperatives of ethical refinement.' Truly the Macivers seem to have found happiness in the quotidian quality of their duties. Robinson might have said, also, that the 'reverent attention' of the writer is what leads to literature, for only a writer as skillful as Hamilton, as devoted to the manifestations of the observable world, could produce a work so revelatory of the human spirit. Carrie Brown's new novel, 'The Rope Walk,' will be published next year." Reviewed by Carrie Brown, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"In each surprising permutation, Hamilton offers fresh perspectives on the puzzles of time, memory, and consciousness, and keenly gauges the many shades of guilt and audacity, grief and sacrifice, tenacity and goodness." Booklist
"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." Library Journal
"Hamilton is exquisitely observant and unfailingly generous to the characters she creates: every life has weight and dignity." Kirkus Reviews
"Hamilton...is extraordinarily adept in the construction of many-faceted narratives that shift and swing between past and present, and her latest mesmerizing novel is particularly well-designed." Chicago Tribune
"Unlike the past that so tragically eludes Madeline's overgrown innocence, Hamilton's new novel is not to be forgotten." USA Today
"Hamilton's characters are complex and vividly drawn, the dialogue pitch-perfect. The author has a gift for telling detail and wry asides." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
When Aaron Macivers wife, Madeline, suffers brain damage in a bike accident, she is left with the intellectual powers of a seven-year-old. In the years that follow, Aaron and his second wife care for her, in this exquisite portrait of how a family tragedy forever shapes and alters the boundaries of love.
About the Author
Jane Hamilton is the author of The Book of Ruth, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, A Map of the World, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named one of the top ten books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, the Miami Herald, and People magazine; Disobedience; and The Short History of a Prince. She lives in Rochester, Wisconsin.
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