When Madeline Was Young

Written by Jane Hamilton
Review by Claire Morris

In 1940s Chicago, ornithologist Aaron Maciver marries the beautiful, fashion-conscious Madeline. Shortly after their wedding, Madeline suffers a bicycle accident, which leaves her with the intellectual powers of a seven-year-old. Enter Julia Beeson, friend of Aaron’s sister Figgy, who convinces Aaron to divorce Madeline, marry her, and live happily ever after – with Madeline their special charge. Figgy can’t understand why Aaron and Julia would not place Madeline in a home, but their son Mac does. Growing up with Madeline as his “sister,” Mac comes to understand that if not for Madeline’s misfortune, Aaron and Julia might never have married, and he himself might never have been born.

This is the framework for a non-linear, complex story, which Mac narrates. He takes us into the present day, where his family situation is inevitably coloured by what has gone before. He explores questions about Madeline’s state: what if she had not been relegated to the role of a child; what if new opportunities had been available to her? He returns frequently to the part-admiring, part-despising relationship he shares with Figgy’s son, Buddy. A rift between the two family branches widens as the war in Vietnam takes Buddy overseas, and Mac to a lab in New Jersey as a conscientious objector.

Rich in the telling, Jane Hamilton’s fifth novel is a window into the life of one American family during the second half of the 20th century. I stress the word “American” because as I read this book, I felt that one needs to be American to properly understand the sentiments expressed about suburban life, politics, war and religion. Although I could not fully identify with the tragedies and triumphs, I enjoyed the author’s insights into relationships of all types, and was moved by the Madeline plotline, which ends in a satisfying, appropriate manner.