Mary Jane: A Novel
Readers can count on bestselling author Jessica Anya Blau for a breezy coming-of-age story about a nice, middle-class, teenage girl who learns about life during a tumultuous summer with an offbeat family. Her newest, Mary Jane, is marred by some hard-to-believe plotting but rescued by genuine love and a wonderful sense of its mid-seventies era.
The eponymous teenager, Mary Jane Dillard, age 14, is hired as a nanny for five-year-old Isabella Cone—known as Izzy—in the summer of 1975, while Izzy’s parents take care of two secret houseguests: the rock legend Jimmy Bendinger, who is being treated for heroin addiction by Izzy’s psychiatrist-father, and his movie star wife, Sheba.
Within days, Mary Jane realizes that it’s not just the presence of Jimmy and Sheba that she must keep secret. There is almost nothing about the Cone family’s lifestyle that her conventional suburban parents would approve of.
The Cones’ house is like a college dorm after a drunken party, with “books teetering on a burner on the stove, a coffee cup on a shoebox in the entrance hall, a copper Buddha on the radiator, a pink blow-up pool raft in the center of the living room.” By contrast, Mary Jane’s mother makes sure that in her kitchen drawers, “the knives were lined up like canned sardines. And the forks were stacked atop one another in two neat piles.”
The Cones, Jimmy, and Sheba frequently pull down their pants and tug off their shirts in front of Mary Jane and each other. Back home, Mary Jane’s mother frowns at her cutoff shorts as too revealing and wants her to wear a hat to church.
The Cones constantly praise the meals Mary Jane cooks; her mother constantly reminds her not to use too much salt or butter.
In the Cone household, everyone is always hugging and kissing. When Izzy tells Mary Jane that she loves her, and Mary Jane replies that she loves Izzy, too, the older girl realizes, “I’d never said that before, not to anyone.”
Not surprisingly, Mary Jane quickly falls in love with the entire Cone ensemble.
But as her job duties expand, Mary Jane finds herself spinning lie after lie to her parents. Why does she need to stay late make dinner for the Cones every evening? Because Mrs. Cone (supposedly) has cancer. Can Mary Jane’s mother come help? “They’re not letting anyone in the house.”
One problem is that this setup forces the reader to be even more ridiculously credulous than Mary Jane’s mother. Would a woman who doesn’t believe a 14 year old should be allowed to cook unsupervised, so easily accept Mary Jane’s explanation about the dinners—and let the practice continue all summer? Would she be so easily put off from “checking on” her seriously ill neighbor?
Moreover, the contrast between counterculture-equals-good, versus conventional-equals-bad, teeters on the cartoonish. And Mary Jane’s parents aren’t merely stuck-in-the-mud caricatures; they are outright racists and anti-Semites.
What saves the novel are the sweet hints of genuine love between Mary Jane and her mother. They sing together in their church choir, make meals together, and share a subscription to Show Tunes of the Month Club.
“Mom said Jesus didn’t care that she didn’t have a pretty voice,” Mary Jane thinks, with apparent fondness.
There are also some fun nostalgic touches; for instance, Mary Jane’s father starts each dinner by asking God to bless President Ford.
As beach reads go, this one isn’t bad. (Hopefully, the audio version could include a soundtrack of Jimmy’s songs.)