Picks and Pans Review: When Madeline Was Young

updated 10/02/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/02/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By Jane Hamilton

Hamilton's novel unspools two threads in the saga of a single family—one conventional and the other downright strange. The conventional tale follows a bookish boy, Mac, and his risk-taking older cousin Buddy, who dominates Mac and continues to preoccupy him through adulthood. Buddy volunteers for Vietnam while Mac inherits his mother's antiwar sentiments. In the final chapters, Buddy's son dies in Iraq, and the boys' childhood rivalries are amplified by clashing political convictions. The parallel story involves a bizarre family secret that is really no secret at all: Mac's father first married Madeline, a beautiful but somewhat shallow girl who soon after suffered severe brain damage in a bike accident. He then marries her spunky, unglamorous friend Julia and they incorporate Madeline into the family—a peculiar older "sister" to Mac and his siblings. Now a father, Mac recalls poignant, disturbing scenes from his upbringing: Madeline being victimized by boys; her romance with a mentally impaired neighbor; Julia's unflagging efforts to give her a normal life. Hamilton's careful, unpretentious prose finds moral nuances both in a full-blown antiwar debate and in the small details of Madeline's care. Mac comes to see that it was this strange domestic arrangement, even more than the crucible of Vietnam, that taught him and Buddy the lessons of loyalty, sacrifice and honor.

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