That was certainly true of Maddie, a Londoner of Ghanaian descent, often referred to as Maame; the nickname is both astute and ironic, as she raised herself for the most part. At 25, she has been the primary caregiver for her father, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, for over a decade, while her mother is leaving for a year to run a hotel in Ghana. She regularly calls Maddie with unsolicited advice about finding a husband and starting a family, but doesn’t offer much in the way of a stable or steady parental presence. Maddie’s brother, James, is usually out and about chasing his own dreams, leaving his younger sister to take care of everything. Maddie is at the center of what is essentially a decomposing house, sending money to her mother, taking care of her father and working a boring, thankless job with a theater company. She has no one to guide her, no support. Even her once-good friends have sprung into new lives, while she remains tethered to her childhood roots.
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It seems the cosmic wheels are about to turn when her mother announces that she will be returning to London for a year and that Maddie can now move on with her life. Hesitant yet curious, she takes a few tentative steps – gives her phone number to a handsome stranger, then signs a lease on a new apartment. For Maddie, these are huge, life-changing moves; but almost immediately she is fired from her job. Stunned, she wonders if it was wise to have stepped outside the safety of her shell.
With its lively self-referential tone, its many frames and lyrics, “Maame” has a Bridget Jones vibe, but with a richer content, deepened by Maddie’s intense sensitivity, as well as her cultural and racial complexity. In her professional circles in London, she notes that she is often 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 also has to navigate the social and sexual mores of both Ghana and England. She has been in solitary confinement for so long, she has virtually no experience with men and relies on Google’s interpretations of modern dating protocols, looking up questions like “Does a third date mean sex?” and getting all sorts of conflicting answers.
When a handsome stranger flirts with her and she manages to flirt back, it seems like her life is finally moving in the right direction. Ben is rich, handsome and a great cook. But Maddie doesn’t trust her instincts; her anxiety can be overwhelming, and she constantly doubts herself. Her fears are compounded by the fact that she is also a virgin.
In many ways, Maddie’s quest is one of love and connection. She’s had little help with that — her father is remote, her mother is absent, and her brother has checked out. Perhaps most striking about her dilemma is that in her quest for answers and identity, she does not elevate her ancestral or contemporary culture over the others: there is no one true ‘home’, no simple solutions for a young woman. arise between nations and social expectations. Maddie is, it seems, a country of her own.
Except, of course, she isn’t, and one of the great joys of this novel is that she is taken on this very personal journey of discovery. Her fresh, vulnerable voice speaks directly to the reader, without hiding behind eloquence or easy self-assurance. George writes with a natural cadence that keeps the story captivating, her characters multidimensional, all very 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 swept up in the ups and downs with this fearless protagonist, feeling a sense of connection and confidence in her character. “Maame” isn’t always an easy story to read, but it’s always told with grace and compassion. As Maddie breaks down layers of family secrets, it’s a joy to watch her navigate the challenges of growing up and growing up, to see what it means to be an adult and live a full life.
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Over time and with some help, Maddie realizes that in many ways, to become the person she wants to be, she has to let go of the person she used to be. Instead of always being the strong nurturer and mother figure to 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 memoirs “Living without a prescription.” Her most recent book is “Fencing with the king.”
St Martin. 320 pages $27.99
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