Jami Attenberg's ‘Saint Mazie' is a down-to-earth, big-hearted stunner of a summer read

For some reason I haven’t read all of Jami Attenberg’s books, and after finishing Saint Mazie, I scolded myself over my foolishness. Saint Mazie will have you fall in love instantly with Attenberg. One of my ideas of a good book is when I can’t let go of the thing, carrying it around like a kid with her blanket, so absorbed am I over the words. This one totally hit the mark.

The titular character of a novel usually sets the tone for the book, and Mazie’s an absolutely lovely companion. The book is based on an actual figure, Mazie Philips, who Jami Attenberg learned about when her friend told her he was opening up a bar named Saint Mazie. When she asked who that was, he explained he’d heard about her in a book of essays by legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, which included his 1940  profile of Mazie. Attenberg heard that the real life Mazie’d written memoirs, but they were never published. So Attenberg decided to write them.

The book is set up like a non-fiction book exploring a real life historical figure, with excerpts from Mazie’s diary and unpublished autobiography about her life from the 1900s to the 1930s, and interviews with people who knew her, or who had family who did, or found historical records of her. That might make it sound a bit stuffy, or a slog, but it’s not, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because there’s a person in every single sentence of this book, and they’re all leading characters. Everyone from the recently divorced lawyer the biographer interviews to the malnourished kid Mazie finds one day gets their due. Even the silent biographer gets her own story, and I whooped at the end when we find out how that turned out.

“Saint” might be a bit of a misnomer here. Mazie herself isn’t a saint because she leads a saintly life, but because she lives a full one. You follow her as she grows up with her sisters and brother-in-law, going out all night until her sister sets her working at the family’s movie theater ticket counter, which Mazie calls “the cage.” But the cage turns her into an observer, though to some people she’s more like a lighthouse, a helpful bright light in the middle of the city.

I’ve written about the way I love New York stories, but in Saint Mazie you really see the building of the bones of the city during World War I, the Roaring Twenties, and the Great Depression. The book’s real allure, though, is in the details. Not the historical details, but in the subtle twists and turns of how one talks about oneself, about other people, about the world. I got to spend time with a huge cast of characters – a cop, an anarchist, a nun, a junkie, a naval officer, a dancer, the Mafia, a war hero, a hobo – but their number isn’t overwhelming. Attenberg weaves all these stories together because these are all people Mazie cares about.

I ate up Saint Mazie over a long, beautiful weekend, shunting work and errands aside until I’d finished, reading on the bus, on the beach, and finally on my bed on Sunday morning with a cup of tea. It took me the weekend instead of a day to finish this book because I went out with some friends. I’m living in a new city, and I met quite a few new people, which I love doing, but it’s harder in a city that’s not New York. But I enjoy it for the same reason I enjoyed this book: I get a chance to see inside other people’s lives. After I finished it, I closed the book with a sigh and clutched it to my chest, my heart. The real treasure of a book like Saint Mazie is that it helps me tap into the mystery of another person, even if that person happens to be fictional.

Related:

Patricia Park’s ‘Re Jane’ perfectly captures a girl’s life in the big city

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[Image via Grand Central Publishing]

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