What a great coming of age novel this is as we follow Mary Jane Dillard’s summer of 1978, caught between her straight-laced and devout home, that’s all rigorous routine and tidiness, and the home where she ‘nannies’, which is untidy, chaotic, has no rules and is harbouring a famous rock star and his girlfriend as he dries out from drink and drugs! Fourteen year old Mary Jane has a complete culture shock when she takes a summer job working for the Cone family down the road. Her role is to look after the daughter, Izzy, but as she finds out roles and rules are not very clearly defined in the Cone household. Mary Jane has grown up with rules, and her favourite things up till this point are cooking with her mother and singing in the church choir. Her mother is the great organiser of their household: tea is always on the table at the same time; they go to the same weekly church activities; she shops for groceries every Friday and always knows where her daughter is. Dr Cone’s professional status is enough for Mary Jane’s mother, who imagines a serious, professional man with a wife who keeps the household running like clockwork. Nothing could be further from the truth and even Mary Jane’s dad points out they might be different – they’re Jewish he tells his family, their name would have been Cohen but they’ve changed it. Besides which, Dr Cone is a doctor of psychiatry and has his own unusual treatment methods.
If the state of your house is truly reflective of who you are (overstuffed, slightly shabby, but full of charm in my case) then the Cones are chaotic, anarchic, full of ideas and very well read. Just like all children, Mary Jane has imagined all homes are like hers and looks at this one with horror and wonder too. There are things everywhere and in Izzy’s room she can’t even see the floor. The family are not just incontinent with their belongings, but their affections too. Mary Jane’s parents don’t show their emotions and seldom show physical affection, but here Izzy’s parents are full of kisses and hugs – something that takes quite a bit of getting used to on Mary Jane’s part. I grew up in a similarly religious and strict family during my adolescence and although my parents were always very loving, I was very shocked when friend’s mums talked to them openly about sex and relationships, or allowed them to read or watch anything, go out till late and wear what they liked. I really felt Mary Jane’s bewilderment at this complete lack of rules or schedules. As it neared late afternoon she would be surprised that no one had thought about what to have for dinner, or that no one had ironed Mr Cone’s shirts. Mr Cone’s office was in the garden, but his methods are rather unorthodox and within the week the house has two new guests; the rock star called Jimmy and his movie star wife Sheba. Jimmy is drying out, which seems to involve eating a lot of very sugary sweets! Mary Jane has been asked to tell no one the couple are there and this is the first thing she has ever kept from her parents. The second thing is her cut off shorts that Sheba has cut so high they only just cover her bum cheeks – I loved the bit where Mary Jane’s mum bumps into her and Izzy in the supermarket, and she hastily throws on an apron to cover her modesty. She knows that if her mother knew even the half of what is happening over at the Cone’s residence, her summer job would be over, and now she’s grown to love both Izzy and their happy go lucky lifestyle.
Of course these two families are not simply good and bad, they’re just different and that difference is appealing when we realise that Mary Jane is getting from the Cone family, exactly what she is missing at home. Her own mother, although rigid and a little remote, is not a bad woman. Yes she has elitist, and often, judgemental views – the first thing she asks about the Cones is which country club they belong to? She also lives a very ‘Stepford Wife’ existence, with a rota of family chores to follow and the ingrained view that a woman looks after the house, children and her husband. In teaching Mary Jane how to cook and clean, she is preparing her for a similar role in life because that is her norm. They belong to a church that reinforces those same views. However, Mary Jane is well cared for and has a very stable home life, with a mother who wants to keep her safe. By contrast, Bonnie Cone is openly affectionate, praises her cooking and cleaning skills as if they’re a magic art, and encourages her to express herself both emotionally and creatively, but she does have shortcomings. She doesn’t work outside the home, but Izzy is often unfed, unwashed and without Mary Jane’s input could be neglected. As a couple, the Cones choose to bring a known addict into their home who is a total stranger, leave food to rot in the fridge and are effectively allowing a fourteen year old to run their home, cook all their meals and be a full-time nanny to their daughter.
Whilst there is so much charm in their lifestyle and love in their hearts, it doesn’t always translate to action and could be seen as dysfunctional. I can imagine many people finding their nudity troublesome – Mrs Cone is often without a bra and Mr Cone wanders naked from bedroom to bathroom, knowing Mary Jane is in the house. As I was reading I found myself drawn to the Cone’s way of life, but also a little troubled by it. While I dislike rigid, religious upbringings I had to feel a drop of sympathy for Mrs Dillard who thinks she is doing the best thing for her family and often is, in a practical sense. While Izzy seems a happy and well- adjusted little girl now, would that continue into her teenage years or might she crave some structure and safety? There’s a scene, early after Sheba and Jimmy’s arrival where the whole household sit and watch Russian and American astronauts meet in space for the first time. Mary Jane observes that as they all sit together, on or in front of the sofa, everyone has an arm round or hand on someone else. It’s a big affectionate sprawl she describes as being like a litter of puppies. This description stayed with me, and I think it is because they all seemed to be on a equal footing. There are no adults and children here – they are all children. This can also be seen in later descriptions of evenings where everyone sings together, dances to the Jimmy’s records and the adults smoke joints. She is even included in group therapy sessions where everyone is encouraged to be honest and has equal status. I couldn’t tell whether it was the whiff of 1970s nostalgia that made this communal living sound idyllic. There were times when I wondered if any five year old brought up in a similar atmosphere now, might even be flagged up at school or to social services.
However, the author’s skill is in creating that nostalgia for the past, the music, the peace, the love and the permissive family. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming and the reader is charmed into wanting to be a member of this loving and accepting household. I felt seduced by it, but then I was Izzy’s age in 1978 and it does feel like a golden time. These are the rose coloured spectacles of a child. Yet, if I asked my parents what was really going on in our lives then, I might get a completely different story. This is how I felt about Mary Jane, that naïvety she has lead to her being charmed by the Cones. She hasn’t stopped to think what would be happening to Izzy if she wasn’t hired for the summer? On one of the last weeks of summer, they all decamp to the coast, sharing a beach house for the week. I was simply waiting for these couples to clash, or something else to go wrong. One thing is definitely true, seeing an extremely different lifestyle opens Mary Jane’s eyes and gives her a more definite picture of who she wants to be and what to do with her life. This is an interesting, nostalgic and funny coming of age novel with a sympathetic heroine who I really enjoyed.
Meet The Author
Jessica Anya Blau is the author of US bestselling novel The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and three other critically acclaimed novels, most recently The Trouble With Lexie. Her novels have been recommended and featured on CNN, NPR, The Today Show and in Vanity Fair, Cosmo, O Magazine, and many other US magazines and newspapers.