You can get a sense of Maddie Wright’s life from her Google searches, which pop up at regular intervals throughout Jessica George’s sparkling debut novel, “Maame.” Here are a few windows on her worried soul: “Is Parkinson’s disease genetic?”; “Jobs with the happiest employees”; “Back pain in your mid-20s”; “How long do guys wait before asking a girl out on a date?”
The results are complicated for Maddie, the London-born daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, who, at the outset, appears hopelessly gridlocked between filial duty and adulthood. While her fellow 25-year-olds are pursuing the holy grail of fulfilling employment, respectable paychecks, their own digs and meaningful companionship (not necessarily in that order), Maddie takes care of her 57-year-old father, who has Parkinson’s. This isn’t cozy, blanket-tucking companionship; it’s nitty-gritty caregiving, with all the stress that bubbles over when the buck stops with you. Maddie prepares his snacks and meals before leaving for work, coordinates with her dad’s caregiver and relays news of his worsening condition to her too-busy brother and absentee mother, who bounces between England and Ghana while overseeing a family business and an extracurricular relationship.
George paints this untenable situation in bold, bright strokes, arming Maddie with a quiet power that almost (but not quite) erases your sympathy for her. Then something terrible happens on a rare occasion when Maddie’s dad is her mom’s responsibility. In the aftermath of the tragedy, let’s just say that Maddie feels guilty, resentful and a tiny bit free. She’s also worried about how she’s going to pay her rent, having just been fired from her theater job by an epically bad boss. She knows she’s a few steps behind her friends professionally and romantically, and miles — fathoms, light-years, eons — ahead in maturity.
As she’s juggling this mother lode of challenges, Maddie’s nickname, Maame, feels like a crucible. She explains, “‘Maame’ has many meanings in Twi, but in my case it means ‘woman.’ I’ve been called Maame ever since I can remember and I loved being referred to as a woman when I was still a girl.”
As a wise acquaintance says, “It’s been a while since I’ve seen someone so young with such heavy shoulders.”
In the second half of the book, Maddie has a chance to be 25. She settles into her new flat; navigates tense situations with roommates; lands a promising job at a publishing company; and white-knuckles through her first round of relationship drama. What does it say about me that I enjoyed the sad parts more than the ones that were supposed to be triumphant? This is not to say that everything works out perfectly, thank goodness. But I do think some of George’s dialogue is slightly dopey, like when a potential paramour texts, “Family are everything aren’t they.” I didn’t buy it, although phones still had squiggly cords when I was single and it’s possible that I was hanging out with the wrong people.
Other concerns: Is Maddie too easy on her mother? Does George pull a convenient trick out of her sleeve to solve a major financial quandary? Possibly, on both counts. Still, these seem like pointillistic gripes when you step back and behold the ambitious canvas of “Maame.” George layers lists, articles, emails, drafts of letters and a Reddit thread alongside Maddie’s many texts and (often hilarious) Google searches. Somehow the patchwork elements cooperate with one another both on the page and in the audiobook, thanks to Heather Agyepong’s elegant narration.
Through it all, George lets dark moments commingle with light ones, exactly as they do in real life. There are disappointments and worries, even devastation; but then, on the next page, there’s an old friend who shows up and takes Maddie out for brunch. There’s sunlight bursting through a window. George shows the details and scope of life with such confidence and joie de vivre, it’s easy to forget she’s a first-time novelist.
By the end of “Maame,” Maddie’s Google searches have tapered off. She still has questions and she’s still curious, but she knows how to find what she needs in the real world. If that’s not a modern hero’s journey, I don’t know what is.
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