Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, September 26, 2022

Monday, September 26, 2022: Maximum Shelf: Maame

St. Martin’s Press: Maame by Jessica George

St. Martin’s Press: Maame by Jessica George

St. Martin's Press: Maame by Jessica George

St. Martin's Press: Maame by Jessica George


by Jessica George

Jessica George's wry, compassionate debut novel, Maame, follows Madeleine "Maddie" Wright as she attempts to find some independence, assert herself at the publishing office where she works, deal with microaggressions from flatmates and coworkers, and maybe even find love. Maddie is used to being the responsible one. She's the dutiful daughter in her Ghanaian-British family, the one who cares for her dad as his Parkinson's gets worse and her mother spends more and more time working (and maybe doing other things) in Ghana.

"Maame," which can mean "woman" or "mother" in Twi, has been Maddie's family nickname for years, but as George's narrative opens, Maddie is beginning to resent it. She's always been a hard worker, careful with money and attentive to her family's needs. But she's tired of single-handedly dealing with her dad's care on top of her own responsibilities and resents her mother for swanning off to Ghana so often and leaving Maddie holding the bag. Her older brother, James, lives nearby, but he's usually too busy pursuing his (supposedly) high-powered career to help Maddie out, financially or otherwise. With the help of her two no-nonsense best friends, a new job at a small publishing house and a lot of late-night Google searches, Maddie attempts to reinvent herself--or simply to discover her own identity beyond Maame.

George writes with honesty and empathy for her characters, tracing Maddie's journey from insecure, anxious late bloomer to (slightly) less self-conscious twentysomething. Painfully aware that she's behind her peers in hitting a lot of the traditional milestones--first grown-up flat, first serious relationship, even first time having sex--Maddie turns to the Internet as a safe, non-judgmental space to ask her embarrassing questions. Though Maddie is intelligent and thoughtful, her anxiety about fitting in and her lack of experience often make her second-guess her own ideas and choices. Readers get an intimate glimpse into her thoughts and struggles through her Google searches, which read like a list of particular (yet universal) twentysomething concerns: What to do when you've been fired? How long do guys wait before asking a girl on a date? Is pre-date exhaustion a thing? Later, she has questions for Google about the particulars of dating: Is a first date at his house normal? Does a third date mean sex? When a family tragedy strikes, the Google searches turn somber: What are symptoms of a panic attack? How do you recover after loss?

Although much of Maddie's journey relates to her personal life, she's also dealing with career challenges--getting fired from a job she hates ("When Waterloo station approaches, I brace myself for another day at a job Google itself has deemed deserving of a bronze medal in the race to unhappiness"), then finding a new gig at a publishing house. Though she enjoys the work, navigating the office social politics proves exhausting, especially when she's usually the only Black person in the room. Readers will root for Maddie as she struggles to make her voice heard at work, while questioning whether she wants to be there at all. Her flatmates, Cam and Jo, waver between being supportive and indifferent, inviting her on a few nights out but seeming not to be too interested in her. Maddie herself, though fiercely loyal to her few close friends, isn't sure what to make of this confusing web of new social connections, especially when she finds herself attracted to Sam, one of Jo's exes who shares Maddie's thoughtful nature and her cultural background.

Despite the several meanings of "Maame" in Twi, the book delves most deeply into the ways it means "mother": both how Maddie cares for her family in an almost maternal role, and her complicated relationship with her own mother. Opinionated and loud, a devout Christian (when it suits her), Maddie's mother has strong opinions about the way her daughter should behave and the kind of man she should bring home. Part of Maddie's journey into adulthood is learning to stand up to her mother and learning to recognize the ways in which the label "Maame" has become a straitjacket she'd prefer to escape. George portrays Maddie's family members with compassion; even James has his own struggles that he's hesitant to share with Maddie. Later in the book, Maddie and her mother are able to have several honest (if still frustrating) conversations about their relationship and the things Maddie is learning about herself.

Full of dry humor and entirely relatable moments, Maame is a warmhearted, often hilarious account of one woman's journey through her awkward yet exciting 20s. Readers will root for Maddie to find self-confidence and happiness, both at work and in her personal life. As she deals with personal finances, flatmate issues, joy, grief and even figuring out what she likes to eat, Maddie is gradually getting to know herself. George's narrative is a tribute to all women who make the effort--no matter how difficult or confusing--to take control of their own lives. --Katie Noah Gibson

St. Martin's Press, $27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781250282521, February 7, 2023

St. Martin's Press: Maame by Jessica George

Jessica George: Beyond Being a Good Daughter

Jessica George
(photo: Suki Dhanda)

Jessica George was born and raised in London to Ghanaian parents and studied English Literature at the University of Sheffield. After working at a literary agency and a theatre, she landed a job in the editorial department of Bloomsbury UK. Her first novel, Maame (St. Martin's Press, February 7, 2023) chronicles the journey of a twentysomething woman as she comes to terms with a role she did not seek and discovers who she really is.

What was the inspiration for Maame and Maddie's story?

Maame started off as very stream-of-consciousness-heavy diary entries. I hadn't had a diary since I was 15, but when my dad died in 2020, I picked up a random notebook and began writing down how I felt. I wasn't writing so much for cathartic release at the time, but more in an effort to understand what was happening. By the time I'd finished writing, I'd realised there was no understanding it: that maybe grief exists as something that cannot be understood, only felt.

"Maame" is Maddie's family nickname, but she has complicated feelings about it.

"Maame" in itself is a lovely word, even melodic when spoken, and is often used as a term of endearment, akin to "sweetheart" or '"darling." The actual definition is: "to be a woman or a mother." I believe the words "mother" and "woman" are interchangeable in Maddie's case. In this story, Maddie's nickname is used as an excuse to give her a lot of responsibility very early on, to give her the duties of a mother without her being one. However, the responsibility and the pressure of looking after and taking care of so much, of being independent (or alone?) for so long, leads to resentment, guilt and anxiety.

By the end of the novel, Maddie chooses to detach herself from the name and focus on the positive things "Maame" has done. There are some benefits to being the responsible, caring, thoughtful one, especially for those who selflessly benefit from these attributes. Although necessary to see the effect "Maame" has had on her life, her main goal is not to pass it on. I like to think that's how Maddie will deal with the name going forward.

One of Maddie's coping mechanisms for when she doesn't know something, or feels overwhelmed, is Internet searching.

Google really is the gift that giveth and taketh away. Sometimes I think, "Where would we be without Google?," which is maybe a grossly millennial response to the Internet. I once posed this question to someone older and the response I received was: "We used our common sense." I've not posed the same question since.

However, for Maddie, her constant need to Google is used to highlight her loneliness and low self-esteem; she probably sees her questions as too inane to bother her friends with. Maddie doesn't share a lot, she shoulders everything; people can bother her with things and she'll always help, but she can't do the same--it's rarely reciprocated--except on Google. Online, she doesn't have to give in order to get anything back. There's also some comfort in anonymity when it comes to the late-bloomer aspect; she asks the Internet about first dates and first roommates, knowing that some (if not all) of her peers have already experienced these things a decade earlier.

It's also a wonderful addition in terms of hilarity. I touch on some heavy topics in Maame, but hopefully balance it out with lightness and humour too.

Maddie struggles to be a "good" daughter (dutiful, loving, responsible) and also assert her independence from her parents. This means different things with her mother and her father.

Asserting independence from your parents is perhaps a theme many will relate to, because it has more to do with thinking for yourself and doing not what you've been told, but what you feel is right. Maddie comes from a culture where disobeying your parents is practically an offence: you must always respect your elders. These expectations are ingrained in you from an early age, so they prove difficult for Maddie to shake in her adulthood. However, the independence from her father is less mental than physical. It's about creating distance between herself and someone she has spent so much of her time with, someone who perhaps needs her around. The words "independent" and "dutiful" are almost antithetical, so it comes with great difficulty to Maddie when she attempts to figure out how to be both.

As the only Black person in her work settings (and also sometimes in social settings), Maddie deals with various microaggressions and misperceptions from her white coworkers and flatmates.

It felt important to touch on this in Maame because since joining the creative industry, I have only ever worked in majority white spaces, often being the only Black person in the room. It's a more mentally exhausting environment than people would assume. There exists a level of loneliness that some colleagues will be completely unaware of. They're likely to think--and that's if it crosses their mind at all--that you can't feel lonely when you're part of a big team, a large office, when you all work closely together, but what they might not understand is that's a very easy thing for them to assume. They've likely only ever worked in homogeneous environments, so they've never experienced isolation on that level. There's also a lot of overthinking and reading-between-the-lines involved, because that which sounds innocuous very rarely is. Maddie spends a good portion of her work life attempting to navigate this.

Maddie deals with various kinds of grief throughout the novel, after personal and professional loss and challenges. How does she deal with grief and other uncomfortable emotions?

Maddie hasn't been given the space to openly express her emotions as she's often too busy dealing with the emotions of others, so when she experiences grief, she doesn't know what to do with it. Her inability to properly process leads to dubious physical relationships, battered friendships, turmoil at work and eventually, a mental breakdown. But when given the space to talk openly and honestly, it's a big turning point for Maddie.

Part of Maddie's story relates to her attempts to go on dates, maybe even find someone special. She struggles with dating, confidence, sex and love.

There's kind of a question of when do you learn this stuff? and what happens if you're learning it 5-10 years later than the average person? Some things, Maddie learns the hard (and sometimes necessary) way: personal experience. Other times she can rely on her two best friends for help. But dating, sex and love have never been the easiest areas of life to grasp, so watching Maddie traverse these fresh waters only adds to her endearing character. --Katie Noah Gibson

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