Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton








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In her latest novel, When Madeline Was Young, Jane Hamilton meanders around the notions of duty and caring: the challenge in all situations of doing what’s right. She shifts from the present to the past, as readers come to know a cast of characters, each of whom cares deeply about someone or someone, and acts in ways to shout that caring to all around to hear. While Hamilton never names the suburb where the past action is set, those who live here know that it’s Oak Park, Illinois, and she captures the racial tension of the 1960s in this place at that time with clarity and tenderness. She knows it well; she grew up here. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 4, pp. 48-50:


There were a few stories my aunt liked to tell about Madeline, but none gave her so much pleasure as “the Italian episode,” as she called it. Through the years, the Moose Lake house, the broad front porch gave Figgy and me the opportunity to talk about the family, to cloak those conversations, that gossip, in the mantle of history. Because I was the closest of the cousins in age to Buddy, because he and I were nearly brothers for a time, she felt an affinity for me that she did not have with the other boys. Although I’ve heard the Italian episode on several occasions, I didn’t understand her relish in it until fairly recently. I thought she enjoyed it primarily because it was the single complete story from Madeline ‘s life before she was ours. The big event, Figgy would say, in Miss Schiller’s record as herself.

“Did I ever tell you about the Italian episode?” she’d say.

“Remind me,” I always said.

We might be in the dark on the Moose Lake porch, or in a café in New York City. “Miss Schiller,” she’d muse, as if she could conjure the woman she’d known briefly. “Miss Schiller.” Wherever we were, the Italian episode began with Madeline’s high-school graduation, Mother Schiller watching the boys parade across the stage as if they were auditioning for the role of her daughter’s husband. The day after the ceremony, Mrs. Schiller took Madeline to Italy to shop for clothes, to look at the famous paintings, and, most important, to send picture postcards to the neighbors: We stood in a swoon in the Bargello. One af­ternoon in Florence, Madeline managed to escape the hotel, to take a walk across the Piazza Santa Croce alone. She had grown tired of be­ing forced to feel in front of the broken statues, all those lost arms and blank eyes, and the unconvincing marble swirls of pubic hair. In that free quarter-hour, Madeline at last was at liberty to develop her own sensations. The Italian who provoked her had dark curls and, let’s say, the famous Florentine smile and the liquid eyes. Although Madeline needed no special effects, it would be tempting to report that she seemed to be lit from within, that the piazza around her, the pale gold of the early-afternoon sun framing her, had made her seem other­worldly. He came steaming to her from the other side on his bike, rid­ing it scooter-style, pushing off, both feet on the same pedal. When he got close he was unnerved and lost his balance. Dio mio! The only person in all of the piazza and he comes at her as if he meant to run her over. He had to drop the handlebar, falling into her, the two of them clutching each other, trying to remain upright. As he got hold of him­self he managed to say, “At this moment—I see in the piazza the an­gel.” He reached out with just the right amount of hesitation, Buddy might have said, and touched her cheek. “Are you—true?”

“So much of Madeline’s fate involved the bicycle,” Figgy always said at that point.

Two days later, when Mrs. Schiller came into Madeline ‘s room at the pension in the morning and found the girl missing, she recalled the handsome stranger in the lobby the night before, the same man— wasn’t he?—they’d seen behind the counter at the leather store. Be­fore she phoned the police, she demanded that the desk clerk arrange for two tickets on the earliest departing train to anywhere else. The mother apparently had had previous experience combating her daugh­ter’s passions. When Madeline stole into her room before breakfast, she found her bags packed. Mrs. Schiller, dressed in her gray traveling suit and her hat with the plume, came briskly through the door to an­nounce the waiting taxi.

There was no use protesting that the night had passed in chaste getting-to-know-you activities, the walk in the dark up to San Mini­ato, the church door magically open, the two of them sitting together, huddling, if the mother must know, in the chill, teaching each other to speak. An Italian lesson, that was all. Wasn’t really the shopping, the Fendi handbag and the pink silk dress, for the purpose of becoming acquainted with just such a man—a man with a solid family business? There’d been the stroll in the dawn to his house, the parents’ apart­ment, where they made hot chocolate. After that consoling drink he took her downstairs to knock on the window of the baker, begging him to let the signorina have a sweet pastry fritter. The mother would have none of it, and away they went, Madeline in that tragic pose, turned to look longingly through her tears out the back window of the taxi all the way to the train station.

For some time afterward, she had a secret correspondence with the Italian. She understood that he’d gotten married or killed when the letters came back to her unopened via the friend who’d served as the accomplice. She was inconsolable for months, so the story went, until my father rescued her from her grief. I like to believe that Made­line had gotten over Italy, that in the first year of her marriage the doe-eyed man careening across the piazza never intruded upon her fantasy of the future Maciver infants asleep in their cribs.

Although the Schillers had nothing to recommend themselves, Figgy couldn’t help approving the story of the Italian. If there was anything she might love Miss Schiller for, let it be her pluck, for that single night shivering with the ghouls and the handsome leather sales­man up in San Miniato. When I once asked Figgy why she liked that story, which was after all a fairly ordinary schoolgirl story, she looked at me with pity, as if she’d just realized I’d been too young to hear such a tale. And she was right, I was too young—but that was some­thing it would take me years to know.


Hamilton’s superb writing unravels the many complicated relationships in When Madeline Way Young, and those readers who can endure the meandering will reach the end of the novel with great satisfaction.


Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2006 issue of Executive Times


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