three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
25-Nov-Dec-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-When Madeline Was YoungSoon after her marriage in the late 1940s, Madeline Maciver suffers a brutal brain injury while on a bike ride with her husband Aaron. The accident leaves her with the mental capacity of a child. Aaron acts with astonishing conscience, keeping Madeline in his care even as he marries her caretaker Julia, and the two raise their own children with the belief that Madeline, who continues to live with them, is their older sister. In his later years, their son Mac is prompted by the death of a family member to disentangle the emotional complexity of his parents’ saintly decision.
Doubleday. 288 pages. $22.95. ISBN: 0385516711

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Jane Hamilton has created a story that goes to the heart of the mystery of caritas, and she has revealed in the apparently flat line of a good life a vital and absorbing human drama. … [It is] her most distinguished work so far, a story in which tragedy is balanced brilliantly against the consolations and pleasures of ordinary life." Carrie Brown

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a quiet novel more given to gentle realizations than shattering epiphanies. Tragedy, always dramatic and capricious in Hamilton’s work, remains at the center here as well. But its presence is the catalyst for what becomes a study in grace and compassion." Renee Graham

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"Hamilton’s writing is top-notch, and her tale woos the reader slowly, drawing us in with sly humor and emotional heft." Lee Rhodes

Minneapolis Star-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Hamilton transforms Madeline from a figure who strains credulity into a touchstone for many truths of family life: how what happens to one of its members can shadow the future for all, and how blindly we proceed through the present, seeing events clearly only when they become the past." Ellen Emry Heltzel

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Hamilton has [not] lost her touch for conveying the complexities of family life or for engaging the bruised dignity of her characters. Yet compared with the staggering calamities in her earlier bestsellers A Map of the World and The Book of Ruth, this story can seem deceptively languid." Reneee Graham

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Hamilton affirms her status as one of our most magnetic and provocative novelists by creating a profound and enveloping matrix of moral dilemmas that revolve around a single crucial conundrum, how best to do good." Donna Seaman

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"[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." Lynn Andriani

Oregonian 2.5 of 5 Stars
"If there is majesty in When Madeline Was Young, it remains inchoate. The strength and clarity of the first-person narrator’s voice, so thrilling in Hamilton’s The Book of Ruth, appears muted with age—both the author’s and the character’s—or perhaps Mac’s equanimity makes him too gray a storyteller to favor." annie Dawid

Critical Summary

PEN/Hemingway award winner Jane Hamilton (for The Book of Ruth) delivers further proof of her stunning talent in her latest novel. The book is a subtle, provocative exploration of atypical family dynamics set against the backdrop of the tumultuous second half of the 20th century. Though the central plot element (which is partially drawn from Elizabeth Spencer’s novella, The Light in the Piazza) is tragic, critics note that instead of becoming mired in grief, Hamilton is interested in the nature of sympathy and the powerful metaphor of a vibrant, happy life stopped in its tracks. It is another brave step in the upward trajectory of this talented writer’s career.

Inspired by

The Light in the Piazza | Elizabeth Spencer (1960): An American woman and her daughter vacation in Italy. When the daughter falls in love with an Italian boy, her mother must decide whether or not to reveal the truth about her.