Jenna Bush Hager was immediately struck by the “voice” of her February 2023 Read With Jenna book club pick. “It felt singular and interesting — raw and new,” Jenna tells TODAY.com.
“I just couldn't believe the author’s talent and the range of emotions I felt while reading it. On one page I was crying, yet on another page, I laughed hysterically,” she adds.
The book that took her on this journey? “Maame,” a debut novel by Jessica George.
Later this month, Jenna will sit down with author Jessica George at our next virtual book club event. The event will be streamed live and feature an extensive conversation with the author, breakout rooms where book club members can interact … and a few surprises. Sign up here.
Speaking to TODAY.com, George says the book’s voice began with her own personal diary. “The voice is very much my own,” George tells TODAY.com. “It’s the colloquial conversational tone that I have in my head.”
The novel began when George was writing entries after losing her father due to complications from Parkinson’s disease. Similarly, “Maame” opens with Madeleine's father dying of the same degenerative illness.
George says that the “ease of creating Maddie was instant,” given their similar starting points. But she’s quick to say that she is not her main character. “The truest parts of this novel are that of Maddie and I — our relationship with our fathers and our fathers suffering with Parkinson’s disease. But my (other) family members had to be made into caricatures,” she says.
When she originally tried writing about her mom and brother, her agent came back with feedback. “She said they were boring characters because they're not doing anything for the plotline. They're supportive. They're there for Maddie. That was a major redraft where I was like, ‘OK, I'm going to make them caricatures of the people I know,’” she says.
From there, Maddie goes on her own journey, separate from George, navigating the unholy trinity of bad dates, bad bosses and bad roommates, not to mention grief and complicated family dynamics… and what it feels like when things start to turn around.
George says she always knew the central journey of the book was Maddie navigating the “split” between her personas: Maame, her family nickname’s nickname for her, and Maddie, her name.
“Maame means to be a woman or to be a mother in Twi, which is a Ghanaian dialect. I'm basically looking at the responsibilities that come with being given such a nickname and such a personality, before you even know what to do with it, before you're even old enough to say, this isn't the name I should have. This isn't the responsibility I should have. I shouldn't have to do everything that comes with being called ‘the woman’ or ‘the mother’ before I’ve become either one of them,” she says.
Jenna says of Maame, “She was a mother to her parents. Therefore, she never really got to explore who she is. To watch that journey unfold is really satisfying and fun,” Jenna says.
Like “Sam,” the last Read With Jenna pick, “Maame” is a coming-of-age story. Reflecting on the two “wildly different” journeys, Jenna says, “‘Maame’ a comedy with a lot of heart and depth — but it’s really, really funny. With ‘Sam,’ we're witnessing a girl grow up and losing some of that optimism, only to find it in herself again.”
George says she loves that her character is a “late bloomer.” When the novel opens, Madeline hasn’t had a romantic relationship or much of a personal life at all, for that matter. In the book, she goes through a series of firsts normally reserved for younger people.
“That's not something I'd read before. If I did manage to read about a character in their 20s, it was very early 20s. They’d had their boyfriends and had moved out already. This is an unusual space for someone like Maddie: Her first real job, being fired from her first real job, first date. I've usually heard from younger storytellers. So it was nice to have a protagonist who's nearing 30 when she’s doing all these things for the first time,” George says.
As for whether her family has read the book they partially inspired?
“They've read snippets. They're not big readers, which is funny, because I’m the biggest reader they know,” George says.