fiction / literary fiction / review

Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

I really don’t know how I came across this book. It was on my reserves from library so at some point I must have suggested they purchase it. I vaguely remember reading an earlier book of hers and enjoying it well enough. Sometimes the lag between reading about a book and it actually coming out is over a year and after the last two years I’ve had, I’m not surprised it didn’t stick in my head.

The reason I am sure I didn’t know too much about the book was because when I started reading it, I was surprised to find it took place here in Baltimore in the upper class neighborhood of Roland Park. It takes place in the 1970s so before my time but I’m always excited to read a book that takes place in a place I know even if I haven’t spent much (any) time in Roland Park beyond dropping off some library books.

I was surprised to see that the author wasn’t from here and never seemed to have lived here. Perhaps she has some other connection? It wasn’t mentioned. It’s such a specific location and time I would have expected the book to have come from a local. As such, some of the scene setting seemed a little off and absolutely no one in Baltimore would call a snowball a sno-cone. That was jarring and even a tiny bit of research into our regional treat would have cleared that right up. The story is so generic it could have taken place anywhere so it is puzzling why she made it take place in such a specific place and time yet dropped the ball some of the details that locals would know.

I can’t hold the fact that she isn’t lucky enough to be from Baltimore against her though. The story of a sheltered rich girl with a controlling mother who finds freedom in her summer babysitting for an intellectual bohemian family is interesting enough for a summer book.

I really did feel like I got to know Mary Jane who was unmoored when her best friends went away for the summer and felt trapped by her largely absent father and status obsessed mother. That age is full of turmoil and yearning for adulthood and I thought that was captured very well. I wouldn’t even mind a sequel following Mary Jane’s exploits at Goucher or another liberal arts college or beyond.

That said, I was a little puzzled about who the audience of the book was. The girl she babysat, Izzy was a real one note cartoon. Endless malaprops and cutesy questions. Izzy was a very young 5. The story and language was simplistic. Aside from one or two scenes involving the wacky rock star and his wife who move in for “treatment” to the house of the family she is employed by I would think the book was for middle grade readers. There are a lot of silly bits about the famous people trying to conceal their identity as they go around Baltimore and talk of puberty that reminded me of maybe a Judy Bloom book or some other book about growing up aimed at kids.

The ending was a little too quick and didn’t make much sense to me. The couple who hired her separated and some how her mother becomes friendly with the family she spent the whole book distrusting? Way too pat and added to the children’s book vibe. It was a cute enough book but it didn’t live up to its potential.

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