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‘Mary Jane’ offers a summertime journey back to adolescence — and the ’70s

Coming-of-age stories show us characters exposed to a new way of thinking. They are challenged for the first time to see the world differently, and they begin to understand that they can choose a different path for their own lives, something other than how they grew up.

That’s the idea behind “Mary Jane” by Jessica Anya Blau — a 2021 release that’s available in paperback and perfect for your summer book bag. The title character is growing up in 1970s Baltimore. She helps her mother with dinner. She sings in her church choir. She and her parents pray for President Nixon.

Then she lands a summer job as a nanny for the daughter of a local psychiatrist, and she discovers a whole new world.

“As Mrs. Cone used her bare foot (toenails painted a glittering red) to kick aside a stack of sweaters on the steps, I felt a jolt of wonder,” Mary Jane says. “Did people really live like this? I suppose I knew that they did somewhere in the world. But I never expected to find a home like this in our neighborhood.”

The Cones are part of the 1970s counterculture, and their house is a chaotic, free love kind of place. Mary Jane learns that a famous couple will be staying at the house for the summer — a detoxing rock star and his movie star wife — and she’s soon exposed to so much more than her lunches-at-the-country-club existence.

Despite some difficult topics, Blau infuses the story with humor and charm. Mary Jane’s naivete makes for several laugh-out-loud moments. And the ’70s nostalgia is thick here, almost its own character. I loved everything about this novel – a summer trip back to adolescence.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.