Jane Hamilton's book explores the meaning of grace in a cynical world.
When Madeline Was Young: A Novel, by Jane Hamilton, $25
The famous Bob Dylan refrain "May you stay forever young," will sound forever different after you're read Jane Hamilton’s absorbing new novel, When Madeline Was Young. Just before America’s entry into World War II, a freak bicycle accident leaves Madeline Maciver, a lively newlywed in her early 20s, with permanent brain damage and a perpetual mental age of six. If you were Madeline’s husband, Aaron, what would you do? His sister urges him to hospitalize her permanently; Madeline’s parents quietly abandon her. Enter Julia Beeson, a family friend and nurse. She marries Aaron after he divorces his wife, has two children with him and takes upon herself the daily care and nurturing of her "grown-up" child, Madeline.
The exquisite evocation of the daily details of family life, as told from the wry perspective of Julia and Aaron’s oldest son in middle age, makes this admittedly bizarre situation absolutely believable. With sly irony, Hamilton — whose previous novels include the PEN/Hemingway award winner The Book of Ruth and, most recently, Disobedience — places the seemingly unchanging Madeline within the context of the fast-changing American political and social scene, from the war in Vietnam to the war in Iraq. This comparison between Vietnam and Iraq is only one way in which Hamilton’s haunting exploration of the ambiguities of time and change challenges us to rethink the meaning of grace in a cynical world.
Hamilton has said the seed for her plot came from the 2005 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Light in the Piazza, and the original novel by Elizabeth Spencer on which that was based. To judge how elegantly each work complements another, listen to the engaging score by Adam Guettel on CD or see the show, now on national tour (piazzaontour.com).
Diane Cole, author of After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges, is working on a book about resilience.