Review

When Madeline Was Young

by Jane Hamilton

A drama lies at the center of the Maciver family existence. The son, Mac, is startled to learn from his alpha male cousin Buddy that his "sister" Madeline was once married to Mac's father. Sure, the boy knew that Madeline was actually the same age as his father, although mentally and emotionally perpetually seven years old. However, the beautiful 41-year-old always has been included matter-of-factly within the family. Now Mac is suddenly too aware of the odd situation.

Mac's Aunt Figgy is maliciously overjoyed to fill in the details of Madeline's story for Mac. Madeline, elegant and slim, had married Mac's father, Aaron (who incidentally met Mac's mother, Julia, at their wedding). Madeline and Aaron settled into domestic bliss, the young bride poring over cookbooks and planning to mother eight children. Then tragedy struck in the form of a bicycle accident, which put Madeline in a coma with multiple injuries, including a permanently damaged brain, resulting in her losing her memory and personality. When Madeline returned home from the hospital, she was essentially a seven-year-old child in the body of a 25-year-old woman.

Meanwhile, Mac's mother, Julia, had attended nursing school; she cared for Madeline in the hospital after the accident. Julia and Aaron ate together in the hospital cafeteria. After Madeline returned home, Aaron invited Julia to see the museum in which he worked as an ornithologist. Julia loved birds nearly as much as Aaron himself. The two grew closer. As time went by, Madeline and Aaron divorced; Julia and Aaron married.

Julia cared for her husband's first wife, raising her as she did her own children, Mac and Louise. It was not always easy. In the words of Mac's venomous Aunt Figgy, Madeline "went berserk" after Aaron and Julia married. She had tantrums, demanded exorbitant attention and even bit patient Julia.

Later on, Mac relays, Madeline had an admirer. Mikey O'Day suffered brain damage during a bout of meningitis. Madeline admired him because he sang at the local ice cream joint. For years, Mikey and Madeline's relationship made Mac uneasy. However, in later years, he comes to a different understanding.

Mac relates the tale, weaving Madeline's thread through the family tapestry and his own life story as the plot shuttles backward and forward in time. He returns again and again to that split second --- the moment of Madeline's accident --- that changed everything for so many lives. This is also the story of the way in which Mac uses his cousin Buddy as a kind of touchstone throughout his life, a yardstick to measure against. We learn too of Mac's yearning for his college sweetheart, violinist Sophia. He wonders if withholding the facts of Madeline from her contributed to his eventual heartbreak.

Mac's narrative of the story adds a sensitive dimension to a situation that could be seen as tabloid-worthy but instead becomes a moving treatise on the nature of goodness, charity and marriage. WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG is complex --- funny, sad, disquieting, comforting, disheartening and uplifting. Although I must admit I experienced some initial difficulty immersing myself in Mac's narration, I was soon hooked and unable to pull myself away from what proved to be an engrossing page-turner. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 24, 2011

When Madeline Was Young
by Jane Hamilton

  • Publication Date: September 4, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 1400096995
  • ISBN-13: 9781400096992