In 1970s Baltimore, 14-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.
When you read a fiction book set in the past, whether that is hundreds of years ago, or much more recent, you want it to transport you to that world, in this case to the sights and sounds of 1970s Baltimore.
Mary Jane A Novel by Jessica Anya Blau, does that. It captures a tumultuous period in America history, when women and other marginalized groups, carried on the fight for equality that had started in the 1960s. It was a period marked by the restless spirit of so many and a questioning of authority and traditional family values. Through fashion and music, men and women sought a means to express their continued rejection of the values of their parents, for they were in search of freedom and equality.
All this can be found within the pages of this novel, in a tale of a young girl Mary Jane and how over one long summer, her world, her quiet life is turned on it’s head and she becomes the embodiment of a generation seeking self-expression through music and fashion. She is the very epitome of a generation that sought to break down barriers, to live, sing and dance, to work as equals of men, be more than a housewife, more than a mother! As a character, she walks a perilous path, one foot in the world of her conservative parents and the other in the liberal world of Dr Cone, his family, as well as the rock star he is treating. As she finds her self immersed in their world, she begins to see that life holds many more possibilities than the one her mother envisions for her and it’s up to Mary Jane, which will she will come to belong in.
Taking this journey with her, was fabulous, I found myself wanting her to reject the cold complicity of suburban America, yet not to loose the best of herself. She is intelligent, talented and I wanted her with every once of my being, to be the Mary Jane this new world offers. Not the obedient, quiet, sub servant child her parents have shaped, yet also not a mixed up, drug taking confused young women. Just Mary Jane, glorious, kind and in search of world where she will be loved, free from the norms that have crushed her parents, a world full of the music and literature she loves. She is not a construct of either world, but neither is she able to sit on the fence between them and her yearning for freedom is moving and often very funny. She is the very amazing Mary Jane and Jessica Anya Blau makes her feel real, alive and vibrant. I found myself celebrating her quiet rebellion, the beauty of her nurturing soul and her bravery.
It is a story that has a backdrop of a world in flux, protests against war and inequality and a generation that was questioning everything their parents and politicians had told them was irrefutable. We see it all through the eyes of a young girl, who questions, as her generation were all across America, the world their parents had shaped.
Mary Jane A Novel is the very best of it’s genre, a coming of age tale, that celebrates a restless soul searching for a world where she can flourish. There is sex, there is rock and role, a pleura of wonderful characters, but this book is Mary Jane’s story, and bloody hell, it is one the best celebrations of this era I have ever read. Not once did the writer lose sight of what this novel was about, she guided us and her character on a journey that will gladden your very soul.
I was left wishing that this is not the end of her story, but if it is, it was bloody marvelous!
Alternately you can buy it from your local independent bookshop.
About the author
Jessica Anya Blau is the author of US bestselling novel The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and three other critically acclaimed novels, most recently The Trouble With Lexie. Her novels have been recommended and featured on CNN, NPR, The Today Show and in Vanity Fair, Cosmo, O Magazine, and many other US magazines and newspapers.