I metaphorically jumped for joy when I saw that Gabrielle Zevin‘s latest novel was on the list of books available for review that PopMatters circulates to its writers. Back when I read YA fiction on a regular basis (back when I was a young adult), Zevin’s novels Elsewhere and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac were among my favorites, and I’ve always admired Zevin’s crisp prose and natural, fully-realized characters. I hadn’t necessarily sought out her “adult” books, so when Young Jane Young fell into my lap, I knew I had to get back into the Zevin groove.
Thus it’s a little bit of a mixed bag to report that while Young Jane Young is snappy, sharp, and timely, bearing plenty of Zevin’s stronger stylistic elements, it’s not quite on the same level of profundity as her earlier novels. Young Jane Young splits its narrative among multiple women to tell the story of an affair between Aviva Grossman, a college junior, and the handsome, beloved “Jewish Superman”-esque Florida congressman who employs her. We hear from Aviva’s mother Rachel Shapiro, a stereotype of an overbearing Jewish mother rendered with affection and warmth. We hear from Jane Young and her daughter Ruby, whose connections to the affair are only revealed once the book has gotten on its way. We hear from Embeth Levin, the congressman’s cipher of a wife. Lastly, we hear from Aviva herself in a drily humorous second-person reminiscence that takes the form of a wry “choose your own adventure” text game. When we’re done with every character’s testimony, we’re left with a more layered view of how we as a society think of the roles of participant, enabler, victim, witness, wounded, and we see how the effects of the affair continue to linger and impact every woman involved.
Zevin’s approach to characterization is generally as strong as ever, with Ruby Young’s precocious (yet totally believable) 13- year-old especially effective. It’s a testament to Zevin’s understanding of multiple age groups that she’s able to capture a variety of women at various life stages and have these portrayals feel honest and true. While Ruby’s curiosity and idiosyncrasies feel totally realized, the strongest section of Young Jane Young belongs to Embeth. Unlike the previous sections, Embeth’s story is told in the third person, which keenly emphasizes the distance and separation she feels from herself—and others—as she plays the role the of “good wife”. We end up wishing she had the confidence to pull an Alicia Florrick and set out on her own—to really make use of the light she keeps hidden under a bushel to buttress her husband’s needs. It’s a tale as old as time: behind every man, there’s a woman working twice as hard, getting half the recognition. Ironically enough, despite our hearing plenty about (and from) Aviva Grossman, the woman at the center of it all, she remains defined, both in the novel and in our eyes, by that affair: she’s just not as fleshed out as the other women in Young Jane Young.
Perhaps it’s a result of Young Jane Young‘s zeitgeisty nature, but the novel, enjoyable as it is, doesn’t necessarily warrant a second reading. I typically enjoy books that continue to reveal layers upon further deep dives, but while Zevin’s book is punchy and entertaining, it’s not particularly complex. The story of the women wrapped up in a Clinton-esque sex scandal is appropriately timely in 2018; as society and popular culture at large have begun to reevaluate how we talk about sex and relationships and issues of power dynamics and consent, certainly the reaction to Monica Lewinsky’s encounters with President Clinton has shifted. One of the perks of being born in the ’90s means that my perception of her was only lightly colored by the media circus following her affair with the President, so naturally I’m inclined to see Lewinsky as someone I could have known—someone I could have gone to school with, even. To me, the gap in maturity and power in that relationship—in any relationship between an employer and a subordinate—seems obvious. Lewinsky herself has since responded to the events that have shaped her life since she was in her early 20s with far more introspection, candor, and grace than President Clinton has. Making Aviva one of the main characters of her own story, and giving her subjectivity and a voice, is an important step forward in how we think of these “other women” as more and more of their stories come to light.
Yet timeliness itself isn’t quite enough for Young Jane Young to match the heights of emotion and profundity of Zevin’s 2005 debut Elsewhere, which to this day is the most creative exploration of death and the afterlife I’ve found in literature (matched only by Sum, David Eagleman‘s 2009 book of twisted fables). If you’re more inclined to sympathize with Lewinsky, there’s something in Young Jane Young for you; similarly, if you wonder what Hillary Clinton was thinking during her husband’s repeated infidelities, there’s material here as well to that effect, which, in the end, is what ultimately sets Young Jane Young apart from so many texts about political sex scandals (see: USA Network’s 2012 miniseries Political Animals): we come to care about not only the mistress or the wronged wife, but both.