In When Madeline Was Young, Jane Hamilton creates one of the more unusual American families that readers will find in recent fiction. Their story begins with the 1943 bicycle accident that left newlywed Madeline Maciver forever trapped inside the mind of a seven-year-old child, an accident that shaped the Maciver family in ways that no one could have foreseen. Aaron Maciver, her husband, determined to do right by Madeline despite the fact her parents write her out of their own lives, refuses to even consider the option of placing her in any kind of institution. At the hospital, during the early days after Madeline's accident, Aaron is comforted by talking to Julia, a nurse whom he briefly met at his wedding, and they find themselves falling in love.
When Julia eventually becomes the second Mrs. Maciver, she and Aaron agree that Madeline must remain a part of their new family and she effectively becomes their first "child," something that does not seem at all unusual to the son and daughter who complete the family. It is through the eyes of their son Mac that we learn what happens to this remarkable family for the next several decades. Most of the book is set in the fifties and sixties, two decades that Hamilton recreates in a way that reminds the reader just how different they were from each other. Through Mac's memories of his childhood and teen years, she contrasts the enthusiasm and innocence of the fifties with the angst and anger that the Viet Nam war created in the sixties.
This was not the novel I expected it to be. I was hoping that Hamilton would tell more of the story through the eyes of Madeline herself, offering some insight into what it would be like to suffer the kind of injury that Madeline suffered, but she became much more of a secondary character than I wanted her to be. With Mikey O'Day, Madeline's brain damaged boyfriend, Hamilton did, however, create one of the more memorable characters that I have encountered in a long while. The always happy Mikey O'Day, a man who loved singing in public and who saw Madeline as the love of his life, was sheer joy in his innocence and turned out to be my favorite character in the entire book.
In reality, When Madeline Was Young is an ordinary book about an extraordinary subject. It could have been so much more if Hamilton had focused more on Madeline and less on the things that made the Macivers just like every other family in the fifties and sixties. The Macivers were different and it is those differences that I wanted to learn about.
Rated at: 3.0