46 pages 1 hour read

Jessica Anya Blau

Mary Jane

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Mary Jane (May 2021) is the fifth novel by Jessica Anya Blau, who has worked as a novelist, journalist, ghostwriter, and screenwriter. She has also taught writing courses at the college level. Mary Jane is a coming-of-age story similar in theme and tone to Blau’s other books. These include The Summer of Naked Swim Parties (2008), Drinking Closer to Home (2011), and The Wonder Bread Summer (2013). All of Blau’s novels have been featured on NPR, CNN, and The Today Show. The Wonder Bread Summer was chosen by Oprah’s Book Club as a Thrilling Beach Read, and Blau’s other novels have also been singled out by comparable book clubs for special mention. As of 2023, a film script for Mary Jane was in development. The novel is categorized as Coming-of-Age Fiction and Humorous Fiction. The story takes place in 1975 and follows 14-year-old Mary Jane, who begins a summer job as a nanny for the Cone family. She is confronted with the chaotic behavior of both the family and that of a rock star, receiving treatment for drug addiction, and his TV celebrity wife who are staying with the Cones for two months. Mary Jane quickly develops an affection for everyone in the household even though their behavior and values are diametrically opposed to her family’s. As the novel follows Mary Jane’s adventures during the summer, it explores the themes of Choosing an Identity, Journeys of Self-Discovery, and Found Family.

This study guide and all its page citations are based on the Kindle edition of the novel.

Content Warning: Even though the novel’s protagonist is 14 years old, the book includes sexual situations, drug use, and foul language that might make it unsuitable for younger teens.

Plot Summary

Mary Jane is a quiet, obedient 14-year-old girl who always listens to the advice of her conservative, upper-middle-class parents. Her father is a lawyer, and her mother is a homemaker who obsessively cleans and cooks to project the appearance of managing the perfect home. Both parents care about what the neighbors think above all else. Mary Jane never questioned her parents’ values until she spends the summer of 1975 caring for a five-year-old named Izzy Cone. Izzy’s father is a psychiatrist, and her mother is an aging hippie. The Cone household is in a perpetual state of disarray, but Mary Jane soon develops an affection for the eccentric, spontaneous Cone family.

Shortly after her arrival, Mary Jane learns that rock star Jimmy Bendinger and his TV star wife, Sheba, will be staying at the Cone house for two months so that Jimmy can overcome his drug addiction. Mary Jane soon discovers that the celebrity couple is just as emotionally open as the Cones. After being exposed to their frank conversations about sex and drugs, Mary Jane compares her strait-laced family to the liberated people under the Cone roof.

The teen also develops her talents as a cook during the summer since nobody else in the house seems capable of putting a meal together. During her time with the Cones and their guests, Mary Jane discovers her love of singing and cooking and expresses herself through both with her family’s enthusiastic support. Jimmy finds the strength to overcome his drug dependency and solidifies his relationship with Sheba.

Before the novel's end, Mary Jane’s parents discover that their daughter has been consorting with drug addicts and TV stars, and they are appalled. They refuse to let her associate with the Cones and their guests, with whom she has developed a deep emotional bond. As a testament to Mary Jane’s importance to the Cone household, Jimmy composes a rock song about her that shoots to the top of the pop charts. After Mary Jane makes her mother listen to the song, Mrs. Dillard begins to see her daughter more positively. The girl then manages to forge a friendship between her conservative mother and the liberated Mrs. Cone. By the end of the story, Mary Jane herself develops an appreciation for her abilities and finds the courage to choose her future path in life.

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