Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau. New York, NY : Custom House, . 314 pp.
Growing up in the mid-1970’s, Mary Jane’s life is fairly constricted. She goes to school, to church, and helps her mother around the home. Her parents are conservative, neat, and quiet, and expect her to be the same. Everything in her life is fairly placid until she accepts a job nannying for Dr. and Mrs. Cone.
The Cones are fairly new to the neighborhood and have an adorable 5-year-old daughter, Izzy. Mary Jane is amazed at the Cone’s home, which is very different from her own. It is chaotic, messy, but also full of love in a way Mary Jane has never experienced. Dr. Cone is a psychiatrist and he is treating a famous rock star that summer. The rock star and his movie star wife are living with the Cones, but no one is supposed to know they are there. Izzy is precocious in the way of a child who spends most of her time with adults with little to no filters, but also is a typical sweet kid who thrives on attention and finds everything fun.
Mary Jane becomes more and more involved in the lives of the Cones and their famous guests, and they play a large role in helping Mary Jane come out of her shell. She has a wonderful voice, but has never sung outside of church. At the first of the summer, she would never dream of singing in front of the famous house guests, but once they hear her voice, they encourage her to sing with them. She is treated like an adult and her gifts of singing and cooking are celebrated in a way that makes Mary Jane feel special.
Mary Jane knows that if her mother had even an inkling of what was going on at the Cone’s house, she would not be allowed to work there anymore. So, she lies to her mother, not telling her about the recovering rock star and famous actress living there, telling her the reason she must stay and cook dinner is because Mrs. Cone is sick, and never mentioning the marijuana and alcohol that is frequently used by the adults around her.
Even though my childhood life wasn’t as narrow as Mary Jane’s, I can still relate to her feeling of wonder as her world is expanded and her views change. She realizes her parents aren’t always right and are racist, though she also recognizes why that is. She grows stronger and more self-assured, being able to stand up for herself by the end of the book. There is casual drug use and frank discussions of sex in this book, much in line with what actually occurred in the 1970s. As a reader, experiencing this through Mary Jane’s eyes, it is a bit shocking, but in the way of a young person learning about the adult world for the first time.
I really enjoyed this book and think anyone who remembers fondly (or not-so-fondly) the trials of being an adolescent who is growing into his/her own self, away from their parents, will enjoy reading Mary Jane’s story, too.
Mary Beth Adams is the Outreach Coordinator at Alamance County Public Libraries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org