Sunday, July 23, 2017

Book Review: "Young Jane Young" by Gabrielle Zevin

Living in the Washington, DC area during the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, you just couldn't escape it—everything from news to gossip to rumors to hatchet pieces about Lewinsky, even spoofs of her on Saturday Night Live and other television shows. And while President Clinton certainly was the subject of a great deal of criticism, in many people's eyes, it seemed like Lewinsky was the only one to blame, and yet for quite some time you never heard her side of the story, but certainly her life was adversely affected.

In Gabrielle Zevin's Young Jane Young, Aviva Grossman interns for an up-and-coming Florida congressman with whom her family was friends when she was younger. Immensely smart and driven, with possible ambitions of a political career of her own someday, at first Aviva does the "typical" intern stuff—answer phones, send out mailings, make phone calls—but as she demonstrates her intelligence, the congressman and his staff begin relying on her for more serious tasks.

It's a few years after the Lewinsky scandal, but clearly Aviva didn't learn from that, as she and the congressman begin an affair. She knows it's wrong, but she falls in love with him, and she really believes him when he tells her that his marriage hasn't been happy for some time. Since she can't tell anyone about this, she keeps an anonymous blog about their relationship, this in the early days of blogging when she has no way of knowing if anyone is even reading what she writes.

When news of the affair becomes public, Aviva becomes a laughingstock. She can't get a job because of her "fame," her family is disgraced, and even graduate school seems a remote possibility because anyone with an internet connection can find out what she has done. She finds that she has no choice but to leave Florida and head far away, to Maine, where she changes her name to Jane Young and begins her life anew.

Years later, Jane has a successful event planning business and is raising her headstrong daughter Ruby to make smarter choices than she did. When Jane is convinced to run for mayor of her small Maine town, it's not long before her past is exposed. And when Ruby finds out that her mother isn't quite the person she believed she was, Ruby sets off a chain of events which bring Jane and her family back into a time of her life that she had tried putting behind her.

Young Jane Young is told from a number of different perspectives—not only Jane and Ruby's, but also Jane's mother, whose life was also affected by her daughter's scandal, and Embeth Levin, the congressman's wife. The narrative shifts from the time of the scandal to the present, and even includes a pseudo "Choose Your Adventure" section in which Aviva gets the opportunity to tell her side of the story.

This is a fascinating book which shows how quick we are as a society to rush to judgment about someone, even if that someone is our own family member, and how we often don't realize how many ripples a scandal can cause in other people's lives. It's also a book about owning your mistakes and trying to move on, but how sometimes you just can't outrun your past. Of course, it's also an exploration of the double standards that still pervade our society, double standards we've seen play out recently in our political arena here in the U.S.

I've read a few of Zevin's books in the past, with my favorite being The Storied Life of AJ Fikry (see my original review), which made my list of the best books I read in 2014. I really like the way she writes, and I like the way she made her characters fascinating despite their flaws.

I was frustrated by Ruby's actions after she discovers her mother's past. No matter how intelligent and independent Ruby was supposed to be, I just found the way she reacted and what she did a little unbelievable and immensely unlikable, despite understanding why she felt the way she did. The whole thing just seemed more melodramatic than the rest of the book, and it irked me.

Despite my irritation with a portion of the book, this was a very fast and enjoyable read, and an interesting look at the lifecycle of a scandal and its victims. Zevin's talent as a storyteller takes a familiar tale and makes it funny, fascinating, and a little soapy.

NetGalley and Algonquin Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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