Tag Archives: jane hamilton


b99706513z-1_20160422123210_000_gcmfb5tk-1-0I don’t want to spend any more minutes of my life than necessary on Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards, so this will be short.

I did not like The Excellent Lombards. It’s about Mary Francis, a girl growing up on an apple orchard in Wisconsin with her family. Her dad shares the farm with his brother, so there are issues about who gets what, who makes the decisions, and who will work the orchard in the next generation. Her mean great aunt and various cousins come and go, as does a middle school teacher she develops a crush on. The book ends with the question, will Francis go to college or stay on the farm?

Honestly, The Excellent Lombards was so boring I can’t even summarize it. I didn’t care at all about any of the characters, especially Mary Francis, who was selfish and self-absorbed and didn’t expand her worldview at all during the book. It was a chore to get through it. I could barely follow the characters or the anemic plot, and I just wanted to get the book over with so that I could move on to something better.

I’ve enjoyed others of Hamilton’s novels – A Map of the World, The Book of Ruth – and I can’t believe this was written by the same person.

I listened to The Excellent Lombards on audio. The narration was fine, but honestly the book was so boring and meandering that it didn’t keep my attention. I finished it off in print today and there was no improvement.

There are a lot of glowing reviews of this book on Goodreads. It just wasn’t for me.




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?



Hamilton Jane Hamilton, author of A Map of the World, Disobedience and The Book of Ruth, has a new book out: When Madeline Was Young.  I read the first three books years ago, and liked A Map of the World — the story of the unraveling of a friendship between two couples when the child of one drowns while under the care of the other — and Disobedience much more than the histrionic Book of Ruth.  Hamilton is adept at exploring family relationships and teasing out the complexities and layers that build up over the years. Incidentally, Map and Ruth were chosen as Oprah book selections, which explains in part why her latest effort has been so widely reviewed.

The title character in When Madeline Was Young is a young, married woman who has a bike accident that leaves her brain-damaged.  Her husband divorces her but continues to care for her, even after he remarries.  His son (by his second wife) narrates the story, which is about growing up with his parents and their adult ward in the Vietnam era.

For some reason, I expected the reviews of this book to be lukewarm, and was surprised to read several positive reviews.  The Washington Post (registration may be required) calls Madeline Hamilton’s “most distinguished work so far, a story in which tragedy is balanced brilliantly against the consolations and pleasures of ordinary life,” and continues, “Hamilton understands human nature as a dynamic force between generosity and selfishness, and her portraits of these characters possess enormous definition and dimension.”

Entertainment Weekly (subscription may be required) calls the book “beautifully written” and “both an absorbing, nontraditional family portrait and a shaky meditation on American political passions.”

The San Francisco Chronicle isn’t quite as generous, calling it “a curious book, laced with drama though eerily vacant in analyzing its repercussions. The result of such contrasts, however, is a perplexing meditation on family, in all its typical imperfection.”

Here is an audio link to an interview with Jane Hamilton from Minnesota Public Radio last week about When Madeline Was Young and writing about families. One interesting bit: the book was inspired by a novella, The Light in the Piazza, which was made into a Broadway musical.

Any Jane Hamilton fans out there? Are you going to read When Madeline Was Young?