For those of you who grew up, as I did, in the ’60s and ’70s, no, this isn’t a book about marijuana. But that recreational herb does figure into this book, in more ways than as a code name it shares with the protagonist.
Mary Jane, by Jessica Anya Blau, is one of the most charming coming-of-age stories I have read in decades. It’s not a book with a driving plot, it’s more a slice-of-life story about a particular kind of girl from a specific era and community; but the trans-formation she experiences over the course of one summer of baby-sitting is such a pleasure to witness.
Mary Jane is 14 years old, and the epitome of a sheltered, white, upper-middle-class girl, raised by two correct but cold parents in a respectable lifestyle that includes all the necessities and some of the luxuries of life but lacks passion, humor, and spontaneity. Mary Jane’s daily life consists of an unbending routine in which her lawyer father goes out to work and comes home expecting dinner at six and a quiet atmosphere in which to read his paper and enjoy his drink, while her mother stays home, cleans obsessively, gardens fanatically, adheres to a weekly menu that Mary Jane is required to help prepare, and rigidly polices Mary Jane’s behavior, schoolwork, clothing, and contacts. Aside from a weekly outing after church to lunch at the (all-white) country club to which they belong, there is little deviation from schedule. Mary Jane is a quiet, well-behaved girl with few friends, who finds solace in music (although that is mostly limited to the show tunes her mother enjoys and the religious music she sings in church choir) and reading.
But this summer, the Cone family up the street has asked if Mary Jane will babysit their daughter, five-year-old Izzy, all day every day. They plan to have guests staying with them, and need someone to be a nanny for their daughter while they are busy entertaining. Impressed with this request from Dr. and Mrs. Cone, who seem respectable and well-to-do, Mary Jane’s parents allow her to say yes. Little do they know what awaits Mary Jane behind the doors and windows of a house that seems much like theirs.
Dr. Cone is a Jewish psychiatrist who works from his home office with clients who suffer from addiction. His project for the summer is to be a full-time counselor and presence to rock star Jimmy, a recovering heroin addict, and Jimmy and his glamorous actress wife Sheba will be living with the Cones to facilitate this. Given their celebrity status, their presence in the household is a secret that Mary Jane must keep. Since she has been sheltered from all contact with rock and roll, Jimmy isn’t so familiar to her, but Sheba has been a weekly highlight on TV, for which she hosts a variety show.
Life at the Cones’ house is nothing like anything Mary Jane has ever experienced. Although their daughter, Izzy, is a well-adjusted, loving child, Mary Jane is initially shocked to learn how neglectfully she is treated: There is no meal-planning and they all seem to subsist on junk food and takeout; Izzy wears what she wants, goes to bed when she wants, and bathes irregularly, while her mom avoids the housework in favor of hanging out with Sheba. Mary Jane is gradually integrated into the household as its most necessary member, as she takes over the marketing, meal-planning and cooking, establishes regular bath- and bedtimes for Izzy, and begins to organize the chaos in every room of the house. A quiet, tidy child, Mary Jane is happy to provide these services for the family, especially in return for experiencing a bohemian lifestyle the like of which she never imagined.
Gradually, Jimmy and Sheba introduce her to all the music she’s been missing, while the doctor and his wife show her what a relationship between two loving spouses who adore their child (even though they neglect her sometimes) can be. It’s a household where there is regular hugging, kissing, and verbal expressions of affection, all like water to a parched plant for Mary Jane. In order to keep enjoying this foreign but welcoming lifestyle, however, Mary Jane must begin, for the first time in her life, to tell lies to her parents, from the big one denying the presence of Jimmy and Sheba to little ones that keep her at the Cone house for longer hours every day. As things around her get ever more out of control with the passing weeks of summer, Mary Jane dreads a reckoning.
The character development in this book is delightful, with the naive but realistic Mary Jane as its charming centerpiece. The author knows how to write people—Mary Jane sounds 14, Izzy reads as five years old, and the adults are all individuals with unique yet believable personality quirks. Likewise, the setting of the 1970s is fleshed out accurately, from the pervasive musical theme to the avocado green kitchen appliances and the exclusion of Jews and people of color from the country club. Mary Jane’s father includes President Gerald Ford in his nightly grace before dinner, and the actress, Sheba, is reminiscent of no one so much as Cher in her glory days.
This book is a wonderful exploration of class, race, lifestyle, and gender stereotypes from the era. But it’s also fast-paced (sometimes), often funny or poignant, and a brilliantly rendered view of the transformation of one girl’s life as she witnesses and experiences new things. Some readers complain that nothing much happens, and on a purely event-based level that’s true; but so much happens in the evolution of the individual characters and their relationships with one another! The publishers are trying to hype it as something akin to Almost Famous, but honestly, it reminded me more of Betty Smith’s classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s definitely worth the read.