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When Madeline Was Young

When Madeline Was Young

3.2 18
by Jane Hamilton

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Jane Hamilton, award-winning author of The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World brings us a rich and loving novel about a non-traditional family in the aftermath of a terrible accident.When Aaron Maciver’s beautiful young wife, Madeline, suffers a head injury in a bicycle crash, she is left with the mental capabilities of a six-year-old. In the


Jane Hamilton, award-winning author of The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World brings us a rich and loving novel about a non-traditional family in the aftermath of a terrible accident.When Aaron Maciver’s beautiful young wife, Madeline, suffers a head injury in a bicycle crash, she is left with the mental capabilities of a six-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. Inspired in part by Elizabeth Spencer’s Light in the Piazza, Hamilton offers an honest and exquisite portrait of how a family tragedy forever shapes the boundaries of love.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Mesmerizing. . . . Bittersweet, funny. . . . Hamilton affirms her status as one of our most magnetic and provocative novelists." —The Chicago Tribune“Among the most graceful and thoughtful writers to work the fertile ground that is the Midwestern family.” —The Atlantic Monthly "Utterly elevating and joyful, a long spiritual drink in a parched landscape." —The Washington Post"A study in grace and compassion." —The Boston Globe“Hamilton’s new novel is not to be forgotten.” —USA Today
Shortly after Aaron Maciver married Madeline, his wife suffered a debilitating brain injury that left her with mental capacity of a small child. Years later, Aaron remarries, but he and his new wife, Julia, refuse to leave Madeline stranded. They take her into their suburban Chicago home, caring for her and accepting her into their lives almost as a beloved child; during nights of high anxiety, she even shares their marriage bed. Decades later, their son, Mac, reflects on this unusual, even eerie ménage, pondering its effects on his parents and himself. Jane Hamilton's fifth novel takes us deep within an evolving family dynamic unlike any other.
Publishers Weekly
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. (Sept. 19) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Jane Hamilton writes about ordinary people living in the ‘50s and ‘60s in an upper middle class family, except for one fact: the narrator Mac has an unusual family member--his father's first wife, who was brain-damaged in a biking accident and now has the mentality of a seven-year-old. Meanwhile, his father has married his wife's nurse and his family has incorporated Madeleine as a "sister," while their mother cares for her predecessor. Mac tells the story from the perspective of a grown man in a successful medical career with a beautiful wife and three almost-grown daughters. The death of the son of one of his cousins brings forth his memories of his unusual childhood. Perhaps one of the more disturbing scenes is that of Madeleine falling prey to one of the teenage neighbors, who makes fun of her by parading her in a "fashion show." Hamilton spends much of the novel having the characters think about the impact of the "enlightened" attitude of the parents on their children. The story is not filled with action, though there are some vivid scenes, but more on the main character's thoughts, which may not hold a YA reader's interest. Age Range: Ages 17 to adult. REVIEWER: Nola Theiss (Vol. 42, No. 1)
Library Journal
As in her previous novels (e.g., A Map of the World), Hamilton sets her latest work in her native Midwest. Pragmatic, smart, and sensitive Timothy "Mac" Maciver, a married physician with three daughters, tells the story of his family and upbringing in suburban Chicago and how a tragedy that disrupted his father's first marriage impacted all their lives. Mac's first-person narrative moves back and forth in time and highlights his parents' relationship as well as his own relationship with Madeline, the woman known as his much older "sister," whose life was derailed at the age of 25. Mac focuses with refreshing candor on his shifting responsibilities concerning Madeline as well as on what it was like to be a young man witnessing the escalating Vietnam War and its triggering of family debates and tension. Hamilton draws a parallel between the Vietnam conflict and the current war in Iraq (Mac's cousin, a career military man, has a son who enlists to fight in Iraq). 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. Recommended for all fiction collections.-Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The narrator of Jane Hamilton's fifth novel (Disobedience, 2000, etc.) is Timothy "Mac" Maciver, a brilliant, scientifically minded fellow growing up in a big Midwestern family, whom we follow from his boyhood in the 1950s to his middle age in the present day. Mac gradually becomes aware that his beautiful blonde adult "sister" is in fact his father's first wife, Madeline, impaired after a head injury, and lovingly cared for by his father's second wife, Mac's mother, Julia. Mac's dad is a curator at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History; Julia-faintly reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt-is homely, principled and awkward, a promoter of social good. One summer her household includes her own brilliant children: Mac, busily dissecting a chimpanzee brought home by his father; his sister Lu, a dedicated cellist; two black teenagers Julia "rescued" from the ghetto, ill-at-ease and bored stiff in the suburbs; and Madeline. Stirred into this mix is Mac's slightly older and much admired cousin Buddy-a catalyst, hero and beloved black sheep. Physically and socially adept in a way that Mac envies, Buddy immediately puts the family's African-American houseguests at ease. And he not only breaks the nose of a neighbor kid who cruelly takes advantage of Madeline and tries to make a sexual show of her, he conceals the reason for the fight to protect her, and takes the blame. The narrative does not progress rapidly or linearly-it radiates in all directions like a spider's web. The web of connection is perhaps strongest at the most painful moments. Hamilton is exquisitely observant and unfailingly generous to the characters she creates: every life has weight and dignity.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.15(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.69(d)

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Chapter One

Everyone when I was growing up had a dog or a brother or a cousin, someone close by, called Buddy. The Buddy in my life had been christened Samuel Schubert Eastman in 1946. Certainly he deserved a dignified name, and yet we boys knew that for everyday use "Samuel" was too grave for a person like Buddy. Our cousin, as heroes must be, was the specimen among us. He was graced with sandy hair, green eyes, a dusting of freckles on his sunburnt nose, and thick gold lashes that matted in triangles against his cheeks after swimming. My mother used to say that his delicate features and those starlet eyelashes in his athlete's body were what confused the girls, the poor things sure he was tender. When he was fourteen, he told me part of what he guessed was a family secret, drawing me in one night with that piece of overrated information, the cheap start, the chocolate with a boozy liquid center. Buddy didn't yet know that there are a limited number of secrets in the repertory, very few of them worth disclosing, most of them good only for the quick thrill of stopping the pulse: suddenly you are not who you think you are. Despite his revelation and his alarming suggestion, it was even then his use of the word "secret" that seemed most vulgar.

We were sitting on the end of the dock at Moose Lake in northern Wisconsin. The house far up on the hill was not an ordinary Moose Lake cottage, the usual clapboard structure with uneven floorboards and a screened-in porch. No, the Maciver family house was made of granite and oak, walnut, copper, and English brick, a fortress with seven fireplaces and fifteen bedrooms, each with a sink scrubbed clean in the corner. Five of the rooms had their own sleeping porches, with faded cotton hammocks from Barbados strung across, the place the girls napped on the hot afternoons. There was also an icehouse, a pump house, a summer kitchen, a boathouse, and a barn. We were all proud to have an estate, which, we were called to remember, was the fruit of our dead grandfather's labor. That he was related to us seemed implausible—a man who had grown rich manufacturing glue? He had shot a buffalo on the range, the rug in the parlor as proof, but also with that nimble trigger finger he'd mounted and labeled and framed his butterfly collection. We loved to look at the petticoat wings and the sad balding thoraxes, the part that embarrassed us. Our forebear, the captain of industry, the great hunter, the lover of beauty, had been clever enough not to lose all of his fortune in the Depression, had made it possible for us boys of the glue dynasty to spend our days under our grandmother's direction in the boot camp of summer idleness. On her schedule we swam, we played tennis, we fished, and we chopped wood.

Buddy mentioned the putative family scandal to me one night, after we'd finally been released from the evening game of charades, all of us slow to get my grandmother's Sapphira and the Slave Girl. He and I were sitting on the rough wood slats of the dock, as we often did, moving our feet through the water, Buddy reviewing what had just happened or telling me what we might accomplish next. As if the idea were just occurring to him he said, "Hey! You know Madeline, pretty Madeline!" He was singing her name. "You could feel her up and it's not like you'd be a pervert. And if you knocked her up—say you knocked her up—she'd have a drooling mongrel that looked like you, but there's no way it would be a real half-breed."

When I didn't answer, he nudged me with his elbow. "What's the matter? You mean you don't know about your"—here he drew out the word, hissing in my face—"sister? She's fair game, Brains, that's what I'm telling you. Everyone should be that lucky, to have the opportunity right here in the home."

I knew about mating, my father's word, and I had the vaguest sense from dreams that my tallywhacker, as my mother fondly called the part—although it was unruly and had unreasonable hopes—might even so be a source of pride to me someday. In my waking hours it scared me to think of that someday, and I couldn't in much detail imagine how another person could participate in my privacy. The mechanics, then, the logistics of feeling a girl up, were impossible: not only how and of course where, exactly, but why?

"Madeline's not related to any of us!" Buddy cried, cuffing my shoulder. "The big secret, pal."

"I know it," I lied.

She'd probably really appreciate the, uh, attention." He laughed into his chest, my worldly cousin enjoying his own joke.

I suspect that my parents had told me about Madeline in some fashion when I was little, so that I'd always held the knowledge that strictly speaking she was not a blood relative. But she behaved as sisters do, and my parents treated her as one of us, and because she was perennially young I never thought of her as anything but sister. My parents were raising Louise and me, and always Madeline, educating us according to our abilities to be thoughtful, useful, and loving, keepers of the New Deal.

Later that night, in the boathouse, where all the boys slept, I lay awake brooding over what Buddy had told me. There was no electricity in the building, nor were there lights around the lake. The rough pine walls were dirty from decades of kerosene smoke, and the sheets that had once been white were dull from our heat and sweat. The darkness was complete. I had a hazy understanding that Madeline was some kind of relation—exactly how eluded me—who had been injured as a young woman. I was horrified even starting to think about her, against my will, in the way Buddy had directed. Everyone else in the room was asleep, and although I would have liked to go outside I felt that I shouldn't get up or move around. My stomach began to ache, as it often did when I was with Buddy for long. I could never repeat what he'd said, not to anyone, and most of all not to my parents. For the first time I wondered if they had to worry about Madeline, if she was ever in danger from the neighborhood teenagers, some of them nearly as adult as Buddy. My cousin surely wouldn't have hurt Madeline, and by "hurt" I meant kissing. But the way he had laughed into his shirt made me consider and reject and wonder again if he might have done something to my sister.

Madeline was in fact my father's age, forty-one that year. If Buddy had told me right off that Madeline had once been my father's wife, what would I have said or done, sitting on the pier, my legs in the water? Would I have laughed out loud? Would I have given a few kicks, splashing my cousin, making sure to get him all wet? Maybe I'd have argued, saying that a person who wasn't capable of doing logic puzzles past a second-grade level could hardly have been a wife. Or, as Buddy spoke, would my heart have abruptly begun to beat in my chest, hard, loud thumps—that overburdened muscle always the organ that registers the truth?

I suppose it's odd that for the length of my childhood Madeline never looked any different to me. I'd heard it said by the women on our block that she was a beauty—"a real Princess Grace," one of them called her. Despite Madeline's height and her regal charms, I always thought of her as a girl, first someone who was my older sister and then, forever after, when I'd bypassed her intellectually, as my youngest sister. She was long-legged and slim, with a silky blond ponytail, each day a fresh ribbon, a new color around the rubber band. Every other night, after her bath, she sat on my mother's bed under the Lady Vanity hair dryer, imperial in the shower-cap device, the diadem that was puffy from the hot air blowing through a fat cord. She did have a high forehead and notable cheekbones, and, by rights as a princess, a rosy mouth that puckered so prettily into a pout, what could be the precursor to a squall. She was a firm believer in outfits, so that if she was dressed in an ensemble as simple as a pair of turquoise-and-yellow-checked pedal pushers and a sleeveless yellow shirt, her socks were bound to be just that yellow, and her tennis shoes, somehow, miraculously, were exactly the turquoise of her slacks. Twice a year my mother took her to a charity resale store, where Madeline, in a fever of excitement, updated her wardrobe. She was a girl who laid tops and bottoms on the rug before she went to sleep, and who insisted that Russia, the cleaning lady, iron her play clothes.

I say she seemed a girl to me, but I also knew she was of her own kind—Madeline, the only one of us outside of time. I was old enough to understand the strange, mournful noise that came from her lonely bedroom, the sound of adult pleasure a person was supposed to stifle. I didn't want to think about any of it as I lay awake at Moose Lake. Somewhere in the middle of the night I realized that what was disturbing me most had nothing to do with my own family. I sat up suddenly, fumbled around on my windowsill, and struck a match. Madeline, my father, my mother, and even Louise and I—our lives were not to be made into stories for Buddy to tell. I lit the candle in order to look at him, unafraid then of waking anyone. His full, smooth lips were open against his pillow, his freckled back rising and falling. Before me was the boy who had the rest of his unending life to be the Maciver bard, to alter our history to suit himself. It surprised me, standing so close, that his breath was as sour as any of the other boys' familiar stink. Of course I had smelled him every summer, smelled his particular sweat mixed with the faint tang of Old Spice, but I hadn't realized that I didn't like it. I was unaccustomed to feeling insubordination with Buddy, and yet I was sure that in a minute I would effortlessly tip the flame to his soft, worn sheet and set him on fire.

Chapter Two

Buddy and I didn’t discuss Madeline after that night at the lake—not because he'd expired in a plume of flames before my eyes, but because the topic didn't present itself again. We went on during the vacation as if the conversation hadn't taken place, or as if I had gladly soaked up the scant communication and had no further questions. He used to jump me from behind, always a big joke, and we'd tumble down the hill wrestling. As I remember, right after the revelation I did resist him with more force than usual and also almost pinned him, something I rarely was able to do. Still, it would never have crossed his mind that because of our talk it was he I might think of in a different light, rather than Madeline. She was not after all a girl you could consider for very long, weighing this part of her personality against that part. You spent your time with her fighting boredom, the way you would if you were told to watch little children. Even though in Buddy's character there was more range, although he was not simple, surely he would have had no idea that anyone might lose admiration for him.

That summer he introduced me to alcohol, and under the influence of the small amount of beer he was able to pilfer, we gambled with nickels instead of pennies. Our bad behavior is quaint now, adorable even, but at the time I thought we were in the most serious danger; I was certain that the discovery and our punishment would be so shaming, our characters so besmirched, that we would never really recover ourselves. We drank up in the woods in the dark, the one bottle going straight to my head, and afterward we'd stumble into the boathouse for cards with the younger boys. It stood to reason, then, that Buddy should have retained his luster. He instructed us as a group about "women," he called them, always pursing his lips as if he were whistling right before the "wo," and smiling hard on the "n," humming the final sound, in case the importance of the word should escape our notice. Our goal, he told us, was to get the goods from women with the least amount of trouble. His advice by and large ran toward pacification as the means to maintaining the upper hand, a general principle beyond our reach.

"Say you've snagged yourself a woman," he'd say, taking his time to arrange his cards. "Once you've got her, you want to make sure you tell her she's foxy, a doll face, a biscuit, but don't go overboard, you understand? You flirt with other women just enough to keep her on edge. You act like you're listening to the whining, you keep your peepers on her, you wrinkle your eyebrows." He demonstrated, head cocked, skin creased, the paragon of attention. "Why do you do this, boys?"

He couldn't really expect us to know the answer, could he? We all looked at the floor.

"Why?" he asked again. Cousin Nick coughed, and Petie accidentally dropped the rock he'd been holding. "Because," Buddy finally said, "you are concerned."

We nodded solemnly, hopeful that when our moment with a female came we could do exactly as he said. Although he had the sense that beer was too adult for the others, he had us all smoking cigarettes.

"Let me tell you something"—he'd take a drag no-handed as he slapped his cards down, the cigarette lifting when he drew in, the thing somehow staying firm on the ledge of his lower lip as he exhaled. "Getting pussy, it's like buying a car. You make your offer, right? The salesman counters, you make another offer, the salesman comes back with a bum deal." He surveyed the circle. "What do you do?" Again, that quiet. "Do you take it?"

"What's pussy?" said Cousin Petie, who had only recently been allowed to sleep with the big boys.

We laughed, most of us with the heartiness of discomfort, unsure ourselves of the details.

"You do not take the deal, you hear me? You hit the trail. Nine times out of ten, the hustler is at your heels, begging for your business."

Not long ago, I remembered that simile of Buddy's with my cousin Nick. We both recalled being confused enough to wonder which a person should do first, buy a car in order to get a girl, or get the girl so that purchasing the Chevy would be second nature. We marveled at Buddy's ease, the confidence in his delivery. "What you've got to realize, gentlemen," Buddy would say, "is that every single cupcake—unless she's a twatless freak of nature—has a pussy. Don't forget that. You fall for a certain broad, you start thinking she's the only one to get you all dick-brained. That happens, you might as well kiss yourself goodbye." He'd had real experience and he'd taken the time to consider his encounters. We knew his wisdom was hard-earned.

Meet the Author

JANE HAMILTON is the author of The Book of Ruth, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction, and A Map of the World, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named one the top ten books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, the Miami Herald, and People. Both The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World have been selections of Oprah's Book Club. Her following work, The Short History of a Prince, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1998, and her novel Disobedience, was published by Doubleday in 2000. She lives in and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin.Please visit her website: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/janehamilton/

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When Madeline Was Young 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading this book I was left wondering if Jane Hamilton hired a ghost writer to author Book of Ruth, Short History of a Prince, and Map of the the World. These are three of my all-time favorite books and was excited to read Hamilton's latest work assuming it would be of that caliber. Wow...what a disappointment. The ludicrous premise and slow pace of the book was so different than her other books (although I did think Disobedience was pretty bad too)that I was left wondering how such a fabulous author could write such an inane book.
Angela2932ND More than 1 year ago
Recently married, Madeline, is in a bike accident, suffers permanent brain damage, leaving her with the cognitive abilities of a six-year-old. Her husband, Aaron, remarries, and he and his second wife care for Madeline, along with their own two children. The story is told from their son's point of view, Mac . Through his changing perspective of Madeline, growing up with her as a kind of sister, and coming to terms with his complicated relationship with his cousin, Buddy, in childhood, during the Vietnam War years, and through the Gulf Wars, Mac paints a picture of family conflict, love, and bonding with family. I didn't think this book was great, but it was enjoyable "company," listening to the audiobook and getting to "know" Mac. Although the unusual relationship with Madeline is intrigue, this seemed to be just a backdrop to the plot of the story, and I kept hoping the author would get back to Madeline, make her more central, but this never happened.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Profoundly moving, if not perfect. Some oddball clunker sentences, some strange shifts in points of view, but a deep look at some big and nicely complicated characters and relationships. Hamilton tries to do too much, covers too much time and cultutal history,and lets one of the main characters go on too long in her anti-war (Viet Nam...Iraq) arguments, still, that character is someone you'd like to count among your friends. The central story of the narrator (and Madeline's) family is weird and beautiful and poignant. Full of love and inspiring, really: how often can you say that about a book?
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was prepared to LOVE Hamilton's latest novel, as I have all her others. (The Book of Ruth is, in fact, one of my all-time favorite books.) And this book, true to form, was well-written, insightful, and probably even more complex than her others. However, about one-third of the way through, I was actually bored with its slow pace and lack of engagement and found myself skimming ahead. I never did finish it. (It's probably MY failing more than hers.)
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Guest More than 1 year ago
When Madeline Was Young is an overall metaphor for when middle America was young. The wonderful but tragic, if unusual, events and people that happen in most families and give nod to my familial memories, are superbly executed in this superior first person male narration. Hamilton expertly turns memorable phrases, adds humor in both humdrum and serious situations, and mirrors real-life questions of polital morality. I'm amazed at her literary versatility! Map of the World took me to the darkest place of human unfairness and experience. When Madeline Was Young will endure internally as a profound look at characters dealing with tragedy in a not usual, but workable way. Characterization and overall genius of plot are evident. 'Loved it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I like this book--I really do. I like the historical context of it all(I was a history major), its interesting story line and concept, and the characters are endearing to say the least. But I think Hamilton jumps around far too much--going into present day then back to the past, then back to the present then back to the past to an event she covered before but talking about it in a different way. Plus I think its weird that the title of book centers all around Madeline when really this book isnt about her at all. Still an enjoyable although very complex read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was also excited to read another of Ms. Hamilton's books. I read Map of the World and Book of Ruth, which were wonderful. This one was not of that league. The premise didn't make sense. The relationship between the parents of the narrator and the brain damaged first wife, didnt make sense. The husband lived with his beautiful first wife and had a plain second wife, yet when they were all three in bed together, he felt no desire for his first wife? Even though the story was told by the young son, there could have been some hints of this in the book that the son would mention but not interrupt as the reader would The premise was not believable. There were other things also with regard to this husband's feelings or lack of sexuality toward his first wife, which I don't think would hold true. I would be more specific but I dont want to spoil it for those who want to read the book. Also, the second wife was so involved and in love with the first wife, maybe there was a lesbian factor there, but no hints of this were given. Otherwise, it doesnt make sense as she seemed to like Madeline more than her own children. Yes, it was slow, but there were some good moments. The family dynamics that did not involve the husband's feelings toward Madeline, such as the relationship between his cousins and their escapes, was well written and sincere. So this was not a 'bad' book, just not as good as one would expect from such a well versed author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I also was prepared to enjoy this book but found myself very bored and quit on page 122. I didn't care what happened to any of the characters. The pace was excruciatingly slow. ( I also found the premise so ridiculous)
Guest More than 1 year ago
It started out well enough, but fell a bit flat. Not as good as I expected, based on my previous experience with Jane Hamilton.