Do you remember a time in your childhood when you went to someone else’s house and you realised that their family life was completely different to yours? I have a few such memories. One took place when I visited a friend for the day, and her mother sent us to the shops for bread for lunch. My friend immediately informed me that we would spend the money on things other than bread – we went to the toy shop and bought scratch’n’sniff stickers, and the milk bar for ice creams. On our return, her mother rolled her eyes, as if no bread was expected. My mum would have cracked it (and sent me back out for bread). Seems small in the retelling but the audacity of the stickers and ice cream left an impression.
Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau is a coming-of-age novel about fourteen-year-old Mary Jane, who has a summer job babysitting for a local family, the Cones. Mary Jane’s own family is straight-laced – her mother is a homemaker; her father has a portrait of Nixon on the wall, and reads the newspaper during dinner each night; and family outings are to church, where Mary Jane sings in the choir.
In my own house, each day was a perfectly contained lineup of hours where nothing unusual or unsettling was ever said.
Mary Jane’s mother procures her daughter the job of babysitting four-year-old Izzy Cone, assuming that the family is ‘respectable’ because the father is a doctor. He is a doctor, a psychiatrist, who has devoted his summer to helping a famous rock star, Jimmy, dry out.
Within hours of meeting the Cones, Mary Jane realises the family is a literal and figurative mess: clutter on every surface, cereal and takeaway for dinner, a laissez-faire attitude to discussing bodies and feelings – it’s all quite confronting for Mary Jane. Then, a week after she starts, Jimmy and his movie star wife, Sheba, move in, and suddenly Mary Jane is also exposed to a world of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.
“Bodies!” Izzy said, and waved a coloring book in front of me. The Human Body was printed on the front.
“That looks cool.” I gathered crayons from around the table and grouped them according to color.
“Let’s do the penis.” Izzy opened the book and started flipping through the pages. My face burned and I felt a little shaky.
“What color are you going to do the penis?” Dr. Cone asked, and I almost gasped. I’d never heard an adult say penis…
“GREEN!” Izzy stopped at a page that showed a penis and a scrotum…. Izzy picked up a green crayon and started frantically coloring the penis green. I wasn’t sure if I should color with her or not. If it hadn’t been a penis, I would have.
The story is firmly planted in the1970s, with references to music, fashion and current events for context. There’s a glorious scene where Sheba buys Mary Jane some new clothes, including a crochet swimsuit, which Mary Jane loves but also knows her mother will not approve of –
Crochet was subversive – it was the domain of hippies and pot smokers, and the Age of Aquarius.
The main message is that we can all learn something from others. Over the course of the summer, Mary Jane introduces the Cones to homemade meals and ironing. They introduce her to spontaneity, frank discussion and taking risks.
“So your dad ignores you? That’s awful! How could anyone ignore you, Mary Jane? You have so much charm.” Sheba kept coloring, as if she hadn’t said anything unusual. But everything she’d just said felt startling and unusual.
There’s a deeper message about compromise and love, the ‘conditions’ we place on love, and the boundaries we have in relationships. This is played out explicitly between Jimmy and Sheba, and Richard and Bonnie Cone, but it also provides a subtext for the relationship between Mary Jane and her mother.
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.
Who should read this book? It’s worth picking up for the adorable Izzy alone – Blau has captured the unfiltered enthusiasm and energy that little kids possess, and every scene with Izzy was charming. But otherwise, if you were looking for a coming-of-age version of Daisy Jones and the Six, then I can recommend Mary Jane.
Mary Jane makes Izzy what she calls ‘bird in a nest’ for breakfast each day. It’s described as a pancake with a fried egg in the middle. I’ve always known this as ‘egg in a hole’ (but with bread, not pancakes). Try this egg in a hole with a bacon and cheese bonus.