“I refused to be shamed.”
“How did you do that?” you asked.
“When they came at me, I kept coming.”
In the early-to-mid 2000s, Aviva Grossman was a Congressional intern who fell for her boss, got caught up in an affair, and caught. In essence, she was Monica Lewinski with a blog. Young Jane Young is how it happened and what followed—as told by Aviva’s mother; a wedding planner named Jane Young; the Congressman’s wife, Embeth; Jane’s daughter Ruby; and Aviva herself. At its heart, Young Jane Young is the story of the choices women make—the ones they are forced to make, the ones others make for them, and the ones they are finally able to freely make themselves—and the way society treats women for these choices.
The Author of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
One of the books that people (particularly women) in my bookish community seem to love is The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry—it gets referred to and recommended frequently. So frequently, in fact, that I read it as my first book of 2017 for the “Book You Were Excited to Borrow or Buy But Haven’t Read Yet.” To be fair to Fikry, very little probably could have held up to the hype. It was…fluffier that I expected. It was quick and it was cute and I can see why people love it, but “cute” isn’t really my thing when I read, unless I’m deliberately looking for something lighthearted after a run of dark books. When Anne announced the picks for the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club for fall, I’ll admit to being a little let down—I didn’t think Fikry was poorly written, (quite the opposite) I just didn’t see Zevin’s books as book club discussion material.
Thankfully, I was wrong. Zevin’s style is still very much the same—her writing as a lighthearted quality to it and parts of it are still what I would refer to as “cute;” however, the subject matter for Young Jane Young is timely and Zevin seems to have a deliberate point of view in Young Jane Young that was missing in Fikry. Where Fikry sought to entertain, Young Jane Young sends a clear message about the names and values we place on women and their mistakes—particularly compared to men who make the same. This isn’t to say Young Jane Young isn’t entertaining—it still is. But this one had the “hook” that Fikry seemed to be missing that gave me a reason to want to keep reading.
The structure of Young Jane Young is interesting—each character’s section is told in its entirety before moving on to another’s so there is some moving back and forth through time. Zevin clearly distinguished between her characters, using a different form for each section, in addition to including speech patterns unique to certain characters like Rachel’s use of Yiddish phrases and Ruby’s more modern slang.
We start with Rachel, written in stream-of-consciousness and move onto Jane, written in a more typical literary style. Ruby follows written purely as emails to her pen-pal Fatima. Embeth, the Congressman’s wife uses free and direct discourse in the third person—this use of third person distances her from the other characters and emphasizes her outsider status compared to the other four voices. Finally we hear from Aviva, written as a choose-your-own adventure novel, with the choices removed. This form highlights Aviva’s relative youth at the time of the scandal and allows the reader to see her choices dwindling as the action progresses. The last section borders on gimmicky and might throw off a reader unfamiliar with Zevin’s style. From reading Fikry, I expected the “cute” so this didn’t bother me as much as it might have otherwise and it services Zevin’s purposes well. By the time this structural choice came up (the last section of the book), I was invested in the narrative and message, so I didn’t find this off-putting, though I freely admit it is the kind of thing that usually drives me to sprain my eye-muscles from rolling them too hard when it isn’t done really well.
I was a child when the Monica Lewinsky scandal happened so I honestly haven’t thought terribly hard about it—it wasn’t on my radar then and it doesn’t really come up often anymore. Young Jane Young forces the reader to reconsider the narrative—at least in the mainstream media that I vaguely recall from the time, there was not an emphasis on the power imbalance, on the age imbalance. Words like “slut” were thrown around to describe her while President Clinton’s punishment came not for the sex, but for lying about it to people who wasn’t supposed to lie to. She was punished for the act, he was punished only for trying to cover it up the wrong way. People questioned her parents’ choices, her morals. She was the temptress, the woman who should have kept her legs and mouth closed. She was, quite simply, at fault, despite the fact that she was 22, only five years’ removed from being legally a child. Indeed, it seems everyone wants to blame everyone except President Clinton—Hillary Clinton found herself in the spotlight from whispers about why she wasn’t able to keep her man happy so that he wouldn’t stray to why she chose to stay.
As Zevin noted in the discussion with the MMD book club, the scandal at the heart of Young Jane Young is not really a sex scandal—it’s a sexist scandal. Aviva’s mother Rachel sets the stage, providing the foundation and background facts of the scandal and the current state of affairs ten years later. Next is Jane, living a quiet life in Maine with her daughter Ruby, as far removed from the scandal as possible, yet still not far enough away not to have the Grossman scandal come back up. Ruby follows, with wide-eyed precociousness giving a black-and-white, right-and-wrong perspective common only to children and newscasters. Embeth follows—the woman scorned yet also the woman who stayed. Finally, Aviva and her choices filling in the gaps. At each step, we see the effect of judgment on the character speaking, on Aviva generally, on women as a whole since we so often live and die on each other’s mistakes being held against us. One of Aviva’s vignettes that stood out so starkly was a discussion with a political science professor where she remarks that the feminists didn’t stand by her—didn’t point out the age gap, the Congressman’s role. The professor remarks that it was true but the Congressman was good on women’s issues. The one woman was sacrificed for the man, in hopes a greater good might result from the man remaining in power. And so nothing seems to be changing.
While I likely wouldn’t have picked up this book if not for the MMD Book Club, I’m glad I did and I’m keeping an eye out for my own copy. Zevin kept the quirk and cute that made Fikry so popular while having meat and a message behind Young Jane Young. It is rare that a book comes across as so light and readable while still packing this much of a punch. Zevin does a remarkable job packing the book with the myriad examples of the way women are held to an entirely different standard than men in politics (and generally) without the book ever becoming preachy (save for the vignette with the professor). The book made an excellent book club selection—any time there are lots of choices made by multiple characters there is plenty of fodder for discussion. Young Jane Young goes one further in that characters make choices but the message of the book turns the reader’s reactions back on them—i.e. Aviva made a choice and this is your reaction to it—what does that reaction say about you? About society? About how we judge and value women? About the standards we measure them against?
Published: August 22, 2017 (my birthday!) by Algonquin Books (@algonquinbooks)
Author: Gabrielle Zevin (@gabriellezevin)
Date read: October 10, 2017
Rating: 4 stars