When_madeline_was_young Some authors seem to write the same book, over and over, while others are barely recognizable from one book to the next. Jane Hamilton is in the latter category. I just read my fourth Jane Hamilton novel, When Madeline Was Young, and it is totally unlike the other three I have read (The Book of Ruth, A Map of the World, and Disobedience). It’s a strange book, in some ways, but I really enjoyed it.

When Madeline Was Young is narrated by Tim “Mac” Maciver, who grew up in the 50s in Chicago. The woman in the title, Madeline, was Mac’s father’s first wife. Soon after her marriage to Mac’s father, Madeline had a bicycle accident and sustained a head injury that left her with the mental faculties of a six-year old. A few years later, Mac’s father (who had divorced Madeline) married Julia, Mac’s mother, but still took responsibility for Madeline, who lived in the household as a dependent of Mac’s parents.

When Madeline Was Young is about a number of relationships – Mac’s relationship with his liberal parents, his parents’ odd relationship with Madeline (who even slept in their bed, like a young daughter would), and Mac’s relationship with his older cousin, Buddy, whose politics were at odds with the Macivers’. Each of these relationships impacted who Mac became as an adult, and the book explores Mac’s attempts to understand – and make peace with – these relationships, many years later.

This book has gotten mixed reviews on Amazon. Perhaps readers were put off by its meandering style, the circuitous way in which Hamilton teases out Mac’s history. But I really liked it, probably because I found Mac to be a thoroughly endearing narrator. He’s a man who loves and appreciates women, and is eternally curious about what motivates them. He is kind and inquisitive and imperfect. I have great respect for Hamilton for getting so deeply inside the head of this man that it was easy to forget that she is a woman. And I respect her for creating a book that is so unlike her other novels.

If you like books about complex family relationships, where resolution and answers may be elusive, then you might enjoy this book.

I also highly recommend the audiobook. The narrator was wonderful, and seemed to be a perfect choice for Mac. (My only complaint was that he took unnecessarily long pauses between sentences, which prolonged the audiobook and made me restless.) Sometimes when male narrators do female voices, they just sound silly, but this narrator did a great job.

There’s enough going for When Madeline Was Young that I recommend it wholeheartedly. Would love to hear from others who have read it – did you enjoy it?



  • December 14, 2010 - 4:06 pm | Permalink

    This sounds like a book I would like! I’m always on the lookout for great new audio books.

  • December 15, 2010 - 7:29 am | Permalink

    I loved it. I found some of the issues fascinating, such as the decisions the parents made about how to care for Madeline, and I was intrigued toward the end where Mac started questioning some of those decisions. There’s a compelling theme of how growing up is in some ways about questioning those ideas we always assumed were correct just because our parents supported them. Hard to talk about without giving too much away, but I definitely agree with Gayle’s assessment.

  • Sarah
    December 15, 2010 - 9:43 am | Permalink

    Great post, Gayle. I read “When Madeline Was Young” a few years ago, and I still think about it from time to time. You nicely articulated why Mac is so endearing. The story line is an unusual one, and Hamilton does an excellent job of unfolding it. I remember appreciating the outspoken grandmother articulating how inappropriate some of Mac and Julia’s choices had been with regard to Madeline (completely infantilizing her), even though I recall that said grandmother was generally an unlikable character. I also remember feeling great sympathy for Madeline’s parents, who had to bear witness to the odd — yet extremely well meaning — domestic arrangement that their daughter was a part of.

  • December 15, 2010 - 4:05 pm | Permalink

    @Kathy – try it out!
    @Sarah and @Nancy – not surprising that you’ve both read the same book!! Glad to hear that you liked it as much as I did.

  • December 16, 2010 - 7:57 am | Permalink

    I read this one awhile back and remember liking it a lot. It really gives you a lot to think about when it comes to relationships, and I really enjoyed Mac as the narrator.

  • December 19, 2010 - 12:44 am | Permalink

    I liked this one, but I didn’t love it. I just found it really hard to buy that a couple would live their lives in this way.

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