Published by Algonquin Books on August 22nd 2017
Pages: 304 •Goodreads
Young Jane Young's heroine is Aviva Grossman, an ambitious Congressional intern in Florida who makes the life-changing mistake of having an affair with her boss‑‑who is beloved, admired, successful, and very married‑‑and blogging about it. When the affair comes to light, the Congressman doesn’t take the fall, but Aviva does, and her life is over before it hardly begins. She becomes a late‑night talk show punchline; she is slut‑shamed, labeled as fat and ugly, and considered a blight on politics in general.
How does one go on after this? In Aviva’s case, she sees no way out but to change her name and move to a remote town in Maine. She tries to start over as a wedding planner, to be smarter about her life, and to raise her daughter to be strong and confident. But when, at the urging of others, she decides to run for public office herself, that long‑ago mistake trails her via the Internet like a scarlet A. For in our age, Google guarantees that the past is never, ever, truly past, that everything you’ve done will live on for everyone to know about for all eternity. And it’s only a matter of time until Aviva/Jane’s daughter, Ruby, finds out who her mother was, and is, and must decide whether she can still respect her.
“I refused to be shamed.”- Kindle Edition, Location 3718
Young Jane Young was my first read of 2018, and I couldn’t have asked for a better book to kick off the year with. Funny, feminist, and surprisingly poignant, Young Jane Young is a story about defining oneself, reinventing oneself, and embracing oneself at different points in a woman’s life.
Borrowing heavily from the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the 1990s, Young Jane Young focuses on a political scandal with a young 20 year old Jewish intern, Aviva Grossman, who is caught having an affair with the Congressman she interns for (who is much older and very much married). Surprising no one, the Congressman is briefly impacted by the scandal but goes on to continue having a successful political career. Aviva, on the other hand, is blacklisted, slut shamed, and basically has her life ruined due to the emerging internet and the ability for employers to be able to find the scandal with a simple Google search of her name. When these political scandals happen, it’s always so easy to get caught up in the media circus, so Zevin’s re imagining of this sort of tale through the eyes of the women involved (Aviva, her mother, her daughter, and the Congressman’s wife) is a bold and important move. We see Aviva as a confused young adult who makes a string of terrible choices, and the long last consequences it has for all four of the women narrators. We gradually see the flaws and manipulation of the Congressman, and yet how his immorality is eventually forgiven due to his gender, power, privilege, and his political stances (he’s good on women’s issues, a professor of Aviva’s blatantly says at one point). Young Jane Young takes a narrative that we see over and over again in the media and spins it to show how it’s perceived through the female gaze rather than the male gaze, and it’s an important distinction.
The powerful, if underlying, feminist themes in this novel are balanced with a current of humor that can be found in each woman’s narrative, from Embeth’s dry wit to Rachel’s Yiddish phrases of exasperation and dramatics, each character’s voice was unique and the tone of the story had a levity to it that felt almost satirical at times. The format also changed at times, from the typical third person narration to emails and even a faux “choose your own adventure” format at the end. These variations in style not only kept the reading experience exciting, but helped to give context to the situations and flesh out the characters even more.
While Young Jane Young was an extremely quick read for me (I read it in two settings) and just barely clocks in at 300 pages, I felt incredibly immersed in the story and family dynamics of both the Grossmans and the Levins. Even though there were some characters that were really mentioned only briefly (Aviva’s father and grandmother, for example), they mattered to the story, and were integral to the interwoven family dynamics of the Grossmans. Honestly, I could keep reading about the family for several hundred more pages!
Overall: Young Jane Young is not just a hilarious, quirky, quick read, but an important feminist retelling of a political scandal. The characterization plays with the idea of stereotypes initially and then surprises you with providing deeply formed and flawed characters. There was also a little plot twist at the end that I was not expecting! Young Jane Young manages to be thoroughly entertaining but smart as well, a combination that’s always a win.