Book Review: Mary Jane

Book Review: Mary Jane

I can’t help but wonder if what I didn’t enjoy in Jessica Anya Blau’s Mary Jane was just me being defensive. I mean, my book club mostly found it readable, believable, and open and fair to both families presented in it. Meanwhile, I came ready to say that it was yes, readable, but not believable and really black and white with its representation of one family as flawed but ideal and the other as monstrous. And one little scene at the end wasn’t going to change my mind. So, I don’t know. The best I can do is give you my read and you can find other reviews elsewhere. I ended up basically liking this book, but it had some real flaws which, by telling you about them now, might actually change the experience for you for the better. You’ll know what to expect.

Mary Jane is quiet and straight-laced, White, upper middle class, and Protestant, living with her mom and dad in a nice neighborhood of suburban Baltimore in the 70s. But when she gets a summer job watching the daughter of a doctor who lives just a couple streets over, well, neither she nor her mother expected anything like this household. Her secrecy about the gig is compulsory: Dr. Cone, the psychiatrist, is hosting a famous couple in his home for the summer to help them with a drug addiction. But Mary Jane also keeps secrets—which she never would have dreamed of before—because she knows it would end her job and her summer of awakening. And, oddly, she is having the best time and feels all warm and cozy amidst the chaos and lawlessness of the Cones and their guests.

I read this book for a book club. It turns out that this book club (not in the advertising) is really a women’s fiction club. Maybe it’s unintentional. And it turns out that is not my favorite genre (even though at least one of the books I have written would probably fall into this category). I am dropping the book club, consequently, but I was still around for Mary Jane. In other words, I would not have picked this one myself and was half-looking forward to it and half-dreading it. I liked the idea. I didn’t know how well I would do with the type of book it is.

So first off, it is a YA perspective in an adult book. Perhaps it is meant for older readers, like women who were teens in the 70s? I mean, other people could definitely read it and enjoy it, but there is a little confusion when the strong voice of the novel is so very teenager-y; we see everything from her (often naive) perspective, but, well, I’m older than like every single character in the story. I mean, I read YA all the time, but this one is more of a stuck-between kind of perspective that no one seemed to mind. It’s not like Kevin Arnold telling us about growing up in the Wonder Years. It is Kevin Arnold in the Wonder Years.

It reminded me of Almost Famous. It reminded others of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?. (Both of these are excellent movies and I’m guessing at least one of them is a good book.) So, teen coming-of-age while also waking up to the culture, freedoms, and experimentation/rebellion of the 60s and 70s. Also, sheltered, restrictive childhood gives way to the lure of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. And Mary Jane is full of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll (without actually being racy). It’s not an accident that her name is Mary Jane.

Sure, there were some funny things in this book. And Mary Jane had a compelling perspective in a fun set-up of a situation (which may or may not (the author says) have been based on Cher and one of the Allman brothers). It was cute. It was a fast read. It was at times funny and at many times relatable. Ultimately, it was a juxtaposition of parenting styles (and therefore lifestyles), though I was frustrated with the extremes of the examples. I thought it was good guy and bad guy instead of nuance. Also, drugs weren’t taken the least bit seriously (though the book is about someone dealing with addiction, it’s sort of a light version of the whole scenario, and marijuana has zero stigma or repercussions, even driving while under the influence).

Ultimately, though, my real issues with the book are not about the toxic and cold portrayal of the straight-laced family or even the normalizing of drug use, but with the writing. There was just too much narrating, too much description. Blau is fond of listing things out and walking through steps which I found yawnable time after time. I love a few, key details thrown in to put me in a place and time, but telling me step-by-step how Mary Jane made eggs in the hole, including her looking for the spatula, washing her hands… blah, blah, blah. And do we have to know every album they all bought at the record store? Yikes.

There were many things worth thinking about in this book (race relations, lightening up a bit, growing up, adulting in a mature way, etc.) but the characters were so overdone that I couldn’t relate to them. And with the long-winded scenes, I also couldn’t enjoy the read despite it being cute and interesting, taking us into a very distinct corner of a time in history and mentioning lots of nostalgic things. Plus, I did not find the ending to be believable, at least as it related to Mary Jane’s family, specifically her mother. That storyline needed a lot more give and set-up throughout the novel.

Most of the other ladies liked it. Maybe all of them, actually. And the ladies who were teens in the 70s? They said, “Right on!”

“…could it be that all messes weren’t evil and didn’t need to be banished with such efficiency?” (p8).

“It had never before occurred to me that sometimes dishes weren’t just dishes, that things could represent ideas in more powerful ways than the ideas themselves” (p135).

“What we’d never learned was that sometimes ideas of racism and anti-Semitism were sparked to life by the very people you lived with” (p152).

“Until I met Jimmy, I hadn’t understood that people you loved could do things you didn’t love. And, still, you could keep loving them” (p204).

“I’d cried more this summer than I had in all the years since I was Izzy’s age. And I’d never been happier” (p205).

“But it’s hard to have a balanced friendship when one person wants everything the other person has” (p228).

“I couldn’t let myself think about it. I was afraid of ending up wildly disappointed” (p240).

“How cooking for people you love feels less like a chore and more like a way of saying I love you” (p279).

“My mother had been such a good mother to me in so many ways. She’d taught me so much. And she’d been excellent company. Until she wasn’t” (p279).

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that fun isn’t important because, damn, Mary Jane, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my strange life, it’s that fun counts” (p296).

“I’d always had the feeling that it was impolite and conceited for a girl to actually like who she was. But Sheba clearly loved who she was. And that seemed cool to me” (p303).