A young woman finds herself during a momentous 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 Showtunes 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.
This novel is pitched as “Almost Famous meets Daisy Jones and the Six” — one of my favourite movies, and one of my favourite recent novels. So, of course, my interest was piqued. After finishing it, I think it’s a pretty apt comparison, but this novel stands very much on its own, too. Mary Jane is a warm-hearted, well-written story of Mary Jane’s coming-of-age in 1970s Baltimore, during a momentous summer. I really enjoyed it.
Mary Jane Dillard is the only child of two very straight-laced parents. Their lives are ordered, “proper”, predictable, and rather bland. They think Gerald Ford is a great president. In summer 1975, Mary Jane is hired by the Cone family to nanny for their daughter, Izzy. What she finds in the Cone household is a completely different way of life: the Cones are a more progressive, rather more chaotic, and far less uptight family. Izzy is a whirlwind of youthful innocence and exuberance, and Mary Jane quickly becomes attached to her. She brings a certain amount of order into Izzy’s life, and the Cone household as a whole — while still retaining the warm and casual family atmosphere. Mary Jane falls in love with the family and life at their home. She feels she can breathe more easily, and welcomes the overt affection that the Cones shower her with.
In my own house, each day was a perfectly contained lineup of hours where nothing unusual or unsettling was ever said. In the Cone family, there was no such thing as containment. Feelings were splattered around the household with the intensity of a spraying fire hose. I was terrified of what I might witness or hear tonight. But along with that terror, my fondness for the Cones only grew. To feel something was to feel alive. And to feel alive was starting to feel like love.
When a famous musician and actress move into the Cone house for long-term, full-access therapy, Mary Jane’s world only expands. She’s only fourteen (something that I forgot, on occasion, while reading), and she’s introduced to a lot of concepts, words, and ideas of which she has hitherto been utterly unaware — mainly related to sex, drugs, relationships, and music. Blau sprinkles many amusing misunderstandings throughout the novel (for example, Mary Jane struggles with the meaning of what a “sex addict” is for most of the book), and her protagonist’s innocence and naïveté is very endearing.
The more time she spends with Izzy’s family, the more she starts to break with her own family life. She comes to realize that her parents’ “properness” masks a racism and regressive mentality that was all-too-common at the time (and, sadly, remains in many places).
We’d learned about the civil rights movement in school. It made me feel hopeful, like change was happening all around us. But sitting at Elkridge that day, I felt stuck in a time-warp atrium of segregated politeness.
Naturally, tension builds, and she starts to push back against her conservative, stultifying home life. I won’t get into the story any more than this, though, as it builds to a very satisfying ending. It’s a novel that manages to quietly incorporate a lot of commentary — about families, mother-daughter relationships, what it means to express emotion, and what it means to open yourself up to other ideas and ways of life. It’s also about acceptance, of yourself and others, and learning about what you want from life — and how perceptions can be deceiving. There are a few scenes later in the novel, between Mary Jane and her mother, that were especially good.
I thought of our Christmas photos. I’d always thought that waxy strangers-in-an-elevator look was just because no one in my family was comfortable in front of a camera. But now I wondered if it was because no one in my family was comfortable with any other person in my family.
If you’re looking for a warm, engaging read, then I’d definitely recommend Mary Jane. Great characters and an enjoyable and uplifting story. Definitely recommended. This was my first book by Blau, and it will not be my last.