Sunday, May 9, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I’ve been reading a string of “contemporary” novels lately, and thought this—Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau—was another, until I realized the setting is 1970s Baltimore. So it’s about fifty years ago, which puts it more into the historical realm, even though it feels contemporary to me. (The fourteen-year-old narrator refers to the back of the station wagon as “the wayback,” a nostalgic jolt. I don’t think anyone calls it that anymore.)

Mary Jane is from a straight-laced, uptight, Roland Park family. Her father is a lawyer who ignores her. Her mother is a housewife who keeps house rigidly, and who has taught Mary Jane how to cook with a military precision, as well as how to behave properly. When Mary Jane is asked to be a summer nanny for the five-year-old daughter of new neighbors, her mother agrees since the father is a doctor. (They don’t know he’s a psychiatrist. They are disturbed by the fact that he’s Jewish, but her mother decides his being a doctor makes up for that.)

Mary Jane is shocked and excited by her first day of work. The parents are relaxed to a fault; the house is a mess; there is no cooking or cleaning, No discipline. But the whole family is kind, warm, and loving and the precocious daughter is a delight. After a short time, the real reason they need a nanny is revealed. The couple will be hosting one of Dr. Cone’s patients, the rock star Jimmy, and his wife, the movie star/singer Sheba for the summer. Jimmy is a recovering heroin addict and Dr. Cone is his therapist. The couple needs to remain incognito, and Mary Jane is sworn to secrecy.

This is a heartwarming coming-of-age story. Mary Jane quickly learns that there is a wide world outside of her experience. She learns what parts of her upbringing to appreciate and what parts to shed. She is incredibly naive in many ways, but also wise beyond her years. The ending is a bit abrupt, with a rather pat reconciliation with her mother, but otherwise, it’s a fine look back at being a kid and growing up in the seventies.

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