Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

In this heartwarming, hilarious novel, a dutiful child from a conservative household becomes nanny to a family of riotous hippies, and her world beautifully explodes.

“I had just turned fourteen, it was 1975, and my ideas about home, furniture, and cleanliness ran straight into me like an umbilical cord from my mother.” In the upper-crust Baltimore neighborhood of Roland Park, Mary Jane’s emotionally distant father thanks God every night at the dinner table for giving him an obedient child. Her world is exceedingly neat and regimented, until she begins working as a summer nanny for the Cone family down the street. This is the summer that will change everything for the protagonist of Jessica Anya Blau’s Mary Jane.

Mary Jane’s first-person narration and extremely limited experience of the world make this story both poignant and tremendously funny. While her own family oozes Stepford-style 1950s values, the Cones are consistently barefoot and scantily clad, and their home is a shock. “I’d never before been in a house where every space was crammed with things to look at or think about (could it be that all messes weren’t evil and didn’t need to be banished with such efficiency?).” Mary Jane’s charge, Izzy Cone, is a completely delightful five-year-old girl with untamed curls, copious energy and few boundaries. And then Dr. Cone (a psychiatrist) moves a patient and his wife into the guest quarters. They turn out to be a heroin-addicted rock star and a movie star, respectively–even Mary Jane has heard of them. She finds herself newly enfolded in boundless affection, acceptance, good humor and nonstop (mostly harmless) shenanigans. How will she reconcile this wild, disruptive, noisy new world with the life she’s known?

Mary Jane is unendingly charming and fun. The lovable Izzy; the messy but endearing details of the Cones’ home life; the surprisingly kind, down-to-earth pair of stars; and Mary Jane’s own earnest, bewildered narration combine for a romping good time. Music is an important thread: Mary Jane enjoys Broadway show tunes (from the shows her mother finds appropriate) and singing in the church choir. Her new “family” at the Cones’ teaches her about rock, soul and blues, encouraging her to sing along, and takes her to visit “Night Train Music: The Greatest Record Store in America.” There is of course a lesson to be learned in this coming-of-age story: “that adults weren’t always right and could be just as confused and make just as many mistakes as kids,” among other things. But Blau’s appealingly naïve narrator is at her best when she leaves such conclusions to speak for themselves and simply wonders at the colorful world just emerging, in this enchanting novel about personal growth and changing times.


This review originally ran in the April 20, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 silverware drawers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: