Maame by Jessica George book review


In the Twi language, “Maame” means both “mother” and “woman.” Such a nickname, when given to a daughter, can be playful or loving, but it can also be confining. In Jessica George’s debut novel, “Maame,” a psychologist points out to her client that these names are given “in an attempt to speak to our future.” She adds: “Growing up, I had many friends named Glory, Patience, Wisdom, Comfort. It seems there is a link between our names and our supposed destiny. We could apply that thinking to the name Maame: the responsible one. The woman. The mother. Often before her time.”

That was certainly the case for Maddie, a Londoner of Ghanaian descent, who’s often called Maame; the nickname is both astute and ironic as she has largely parented herself. At 25, she’s been the primary caretaker for over a decade for her father who has Parkinson’s disease, while her mother leaves for a year at a time to manage a hotel in Ghana. She regularly calls Maddie with unasked-for advice about finding a husband and starting a family but doesn’t provide much in the way of a stable or steady parental presence. Maddie’s brother, James, is usually off pursuing his own dreams, leaving his younger sister to take care of everything. Maddie stands at the center of what is essentially a dissolving home, sending money to her mother, tending to her father and working a dull, unrewarding job at a theater company. She has no one to guide her, no support. Even her once-close friends have drifted into new lives while she has remained tethered to her childhood roots.

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It seems that the cosmic wheels may be about to turn when her mother announces she’ll be returning to London for a year and that Maddie can now get on with her life. Hesitant yet curious, she takes a few cautious steps — gives her phone number to a handsome stranger, then signs a lease on a new apartment. For Maddie, these are huge, life-altering moves; but almost immediately, she’s fired from her job. Stunned, she questions the wisdom of having pushed beyond the safety of her shell.

With its lively self-referential tone, its many lists and texts, “Maame” has a Bridget Jones vibe, but with richer substance, deepened by Maddie’s intense sensitivity, as well as her cultural and racial complexity. In her professional circles in London, she notes that she’s frequently the only Black person in the room, but when she visits her parents’ homeland, her cousins laugh at her inability to balance jugs on her head. Maddie must also navigate the social and sexual mores of both Ghana and England. She’s been sequestered for so long, she has virtually no experience with men and relies on Google’s interpretations of modern dating protocols, looking up queries such as “Does a third date mean sex?” and receiving all sorts of conflicting answers.

When a handsome stranger flirts with her and she manages to flirt back, it seems as if her life might finally be moving in the right direction. Ben is wealthy, handsome and a wonderful cook. But Maddie doesn’t trust her instincts; her anxiety can be overwhelming, and she second-guesses herself continually. Her apprehension is compounded by the fact that she is also still a virgin.

In many ways, Maddie’s quest is one of love and connection. She’s had little help in this regard — her father is remote, her mother absent and her brother checked out. What’s arguably most striking about her dilemma is that in her search for answers and identity, she doesn’t elevate either her ancestral or present-day culture over the other: There is no one true “home,” no simple solutions for a young woman raised between nations and social expectations. Maddie is, it seems, a country of her own.

Except of course, she’s not, and one of the great pleasures of this novel is being taken on this very personal journey of discovery. Her fresh, vulnerable voice speaks directly to readers, without hiding behind glibness or easy self-assurance. George writes with a natural cadence that keeps the story engaging, her characters multidimensional, each of them deeply believable. Maddie’s struggles grow and intensify, and there comes a point when things seem to be on the verge of collapse. But readers will be drawn into the peaks and troughs with this intrepid protagonist, feeling a sense of connection to and trust in her character. “Maame” isn’t always an easy story to read, but it is always told with grace and compassion. As Maddie breaks through layers of family secrecy, it’s a pleasure to watch her navigate the challenges of growth and growing up, to address what it means to be an adult and to live a full life.

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Over time and with some assistance, Maddie realizes that to become the person she wants to be she must let go, in many ways, of the person she was. Instead of always being the strong caretaker and mother figure for the world around her, Maame discovers that she can and must take care of herself.

Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of “Birds of Paradise,” “Origin” and the culinary memoir “Life Without a Recipe.” Her most recent book is “Fencing With the King.”

St. Martin’s. 320 pp. $27.99

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