The Return of the Full-Length Review: Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

I went to a very small (as in, the entire undergraduate student body was smaller than my high school’s senior class) liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon. I had grown up in Virginia, so my school shouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar. But when I told people where I was going, the response was always, “Wait. That sounds familiar. Why does that sound familiar?”

Why, indeed? Well . . . this was roughly two years after the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal broke. And I was going to Lewis and Clark College, Lewinsky’s alma mater. In those days, Lewinsky was such a household name that even her teeny college became familiar to the masses.

Fast forward twenty years, and Monica Lewinsky is still a household name, forever associated with cigars and a stained Gap dress. Google her, and you’ll find a TIME “article” entitled “Top 10 Mistresses.” Do a search for “slut-shaming,” and one of the top hits will be a blog post entitled “The Truth about Slut-Shaming” with a picture of Lewinsky as its hero image.

Last year, Jon Ronson (author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) wrote an article about Lewinsky in The Guardian in which she is quoted as saying, “The shame sticks to you like tar.” But, thankfully, the article contains a glimmer of hope: “Lewinsky was once among the 20th century’s most humiliated people, ridiculed across the world. Now she’s a respected and perceptive anti-bullying advocate. She gives talks at Facebook, and at business conferences, on how to make the internet more compassionate.” 

Unknown.jpegYoung Jane Young
Gabrielle Zevin
304 pages
Published August 22, 2017

Rating: 4/5

Young Jane Young is about Aviva Grossman, a fictional Monica Lewinsky. As a college-student intern, she has an affair with her boss (an attractive, married Congressman with two kids). Oh, and she naively decides to document their lurid affair in an “anonymous”–and very explicit–blog.

Like Lewinsky, when the affair becomes public knowledge, she is plunged into a sea of scandal and infamy. “Avivagate” is a huge news story in South Florida, but Aviva foolishly believes (hopes?) that if she ventures far from home, she can escape the fug of shame. No such luck. Google is not her friend.

But, fret not, dear readers! Remember the glimmer of hope! Aviva doesn’t let herself flounder and drown in that sea of scandal. Instead, she reinvents herself . . . as Jane Young, a strong, capable event planner/mom in the small, cold city of Allison Springs, Maine.

The book is told in five parts, each focused on one of the central characters, all of whom are female. They are all complex and realistic and interesting. Despite being seemingly stereotypical, they are multi-dimensional and a little bit surprising. And, although they are flawed, they are also likable. You have:

  • Rachel, Aviva/Jane’s now sixty-four-year-old Jewish mom. She is a divorcée, who lives in Boca Raton. She loves her daughter. She worries about her daughter. Unfortunately, she is now virtually estranged from her daughter. She teaches pilates, has miserable dates with guys she meets online, and is a perpetual third wheel to her best friend, Roz, and Roz’s new husband, “the glass guy.” Rachel says things like, “Even if I got fired for this narishkeit fundraiser, it would have been worth it if I had managed to save my daughter and her good name.”
  • Jane Young, f/k/a Aviva Grossman. She has a young daughter, Ruby, whose father is not in the picture. She has a degree in political science and Spanish literature and still pines for a life in politics. She is tough and smart. And she is popular (because when you plan people’s weddings, they inevitably open up to you). She says things like, “Wes was Wesley West—based on his name, I suspected his parents would be awful and I looked forward to meeting these monsters.”
  • Ruby, Jane’s precocious ten-year-old daughter, whose “raison d’être” is vocabulary.  Her part of the book is entirely epistolary—it is presented as emails to her Indonesian pen-pal, Fatima. She has been told that her dad was killed in a car crash before she was born, but she is beginning to think that’s not the full story. She loves quotation marks and says things like, “A ‘chatty drunk’ is ‘a socialite who does not just pass out like normal people.’”
  • Embeth, the politician’s wife, who, despite everything, still really loves her husband. She is fiercely smart and always composed, but she has cancer and has recently begun seeing, hearing, and speaking to an invisible parrot named El Méte. She says things like, “The truth was, being cheated on was not that bad. It was being cheated on in public that was hard. It was wearing the ill-fitting shroud of the wronged woman. It was standing next to him, meekly, when he apologized. It was figuring out where to cast your gaze, and choosing the right suit jacket. What suit jacket would say ‘supportive,’ ‘feminist,’ ‘unbroken,’ ‘optimistic’?”

The final part of the book is Aviva Grossman’s story told largely in the style of a Choose-Your-Own Adventure book. Yes, that sounds cheesy, but it is actually well (and comically) done.

Author Gabrielle Zevin wrote The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, which I enjoyed for its charm. I said in my review that it was “pure fluff (cute writing, funny, light, and sweet) in the vein of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. It’s not particularly deep, it’s very predictable, and it’s a little too simple (and, yes, the ending is schmaltzy, rushed, and trite. But this is fluff. What do you expect?).” The beauty of this book, her first since Fikry, is that it has Fikry’s fun and breezy and fluffy feel, but it also has a strong message. Its focus is not on the scandal itself, but on the ability to overcome even the most embarrassing public shaming. Young Jane Young is a story of resurrection and perseverance. But it is not cheesy or schmaltzy. It is readable and enjoyable and funny. 

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