Do you remember the summer it all changed for you?
I honestly don’t know if, for me, it was one summer or a series of them, but for Mary Jane Dillard, the only child of a Baltimore area lawyer and his wife, it was in the 1970s when she was just 14 and hired as a summer nanny to five-year-old Izzy Cone.
In Jessica Anya Blau’s “Mary Jane,” readers are painfully reminded that not everyone grew up with totally rad parents in the decade that followed Woodstock.
It was also a reminder of that thing called privilege when you know racism and anti-Semitism exist but of course not in your circles so when a conversation between your book’s protagonist and her parents puts racism on full display you’re knocked off your sense of order and balance.
“Mary Jane” is a coming of age novel that works because it feels like it is about everything and nothing all at once, which pretty much sums up being 14. From a bird’s eye view, it’s the story of a young girl taking care of a younger girl for the summer — going to the grocery store, hanging out in the kitchen, lots of storytelling and the obligatory after-dinner baths. The parents are scatter-brained but loving, and the sense of chaos is a welcome change to Mary Jane’s very scheduled, dullish life with Mom and Dad — no, scratch that — Mother and Father.
But take a closer look — follow Mary Jane through the front door and you’ll discover she’s got all the anxiety that comes with puberty and no one to really talk to about it. Maybe Izzy’s dad, Dr. Cone, would or could help, but he’s busy this summer being available 24/7 as a therapist to Jimmy Bendinger, a famous rock star with an even more famous actress wife, Sheba. This is no ordinary nanny assignment. Mary Jane isn’t taking care of just one little girl — she’s taking care of an entire tribe.
In an instant, Mary Jane has to confront what she knew about people living on the outside of her inner circle and how her parents’ worldly opinions don’t match with what she’s experiencing. And at the same time, she is forced to come to terms with the role her mother played in making her the person she is, and that how sometimes that isn’t the worst thing to have to admit.
The story pacing is such that I read this cover to cover in about a day or so. Once drawn into the world of the Cones, Jimmy and Sheba, you don’t really want to leave. “Mary Jane” is worth a little of your time this summer. Highly recommend it.