Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin
Rating: 4/5 ****’s
First, let me say that I requested this from Netgalley based solely on the fact that I loved the author’s last book, The Storied Life of AJ Fikry. I really didn’t pay much attention to the synopsis; all I really knew about it was that it was about the aftermath of a sex scandal involving the title character and a highly public political official.
The story is told in five parts. First from Rachel, Aviva’s mother, second from Aviva/Jane Young, third from her daughter Ruby’s perspective, fourth from Embeth, the congressmans wife, and finally a “choose your own” ending.
I liked the different perspectives because I like to hear how an event impacts everyone involved in a different way. It is easy to forget that most stories have many sides.
I didn’t care for the first half of the book because of the first two perspectives. Aviva’s mothers telling was pretty straightforward and laid the groundwork for the story. She used a lot of Jewish slang and references that I am unfamiliar with. This didn’t bother me but it made me feel like I was missing something. I got that sort of lost-in-translation feeling.
When the book moved on to Jane Young’s perspective I was interested in her story but I wasn’t sure where it was going. I thought, ok she changed her name and moved away, the end, how is there really that much more to this story?
When I began reading, I didn’t realize that this novel was written in an unconventional format. Not only is it told from different perspectives, it mixes different styles.
Ruby’s part is told through a series of letters to an international pen pal she was assigned at school. When I started reading this part I was like what is this now? And seriously considered setting it aside completely. But I was committed to finishing because I received this advanced copy through Netgalley for review.
I also have a particular aversion to smart-ass kids who think they know more than they’re parents and I had already decided that Ruby was one.
Well I can admit when I’m wrong. Ruby is smart and funny and bright and wise beyond her years. As I read on in her section I liked her more and more. I was able to understood her better, sympathize with her situation, and understand her choices.
The next part is told from Embeth’s POV. In previous parts of the story she is barely mentioned and usually only as the congressman’s wife. The reader is given the impression that their marriage was for political reasons and that the congressman was unhappy with her.
I think it was mentioned that she stayed with him throughout the scandal but when I came to her part in the novel I was surprised that they were still married and I was surprised that her POV was part of the novel.
As I’m writing this I feel like an ass that I was surprised by these things, but I was.
Embeth’s part is hard to talk about without spoiling the novel. I will say that given the previous context in which she was portrayed she surprised me.
I know I have used the word “surprised” a lot, but that is why I liked the second half of the novel so much.
I had her pegged as the cold, ambitious, “typical” politicians wife. I figured that she stayed with him because that is what these women do. Well, I was wrong, again, but quite happy to be proven so.
Finally, the last part is “choose your own.” I don’t know if it is supposed to be taken literally, but I just read it straight through. I think that it ties everything together nicely and the end is left open for you to decide what you think happens.
I liked that this book takes news stories and “scandals” that we are inundated with by the media everyday and gives them some humanity. It reminds us that there are people with feelings and circumstances and families behind the headlines. It also reminds us that everyone has a chapter in their life that they may regret or aren’t proud of and we should maybe be less quick to judge based on a headline or a blurb or a snippet on the news.
The novel has been lauded as a work of feminism. I think that is a bit hyperbolic but essentially accurate. In the scandal involving Aviva and the congressman, she is the one who bears the brunt of the blame, she is the one who is slut shamed and she is forced to upend her entire life to try to escape everyone’s judgement and opinions.
We, me included I’m sad to say, make automatic assumptions about Aviva’s character and about Embeth’s character; about what is says about them as women and mothers.
The point being that if our society were truly egalitarian and feminist we would base our decisions regarding fault less on gender and more on merit.
I think that attaching the word feminism is hyperbolic because I’d like to think that the novel is more about considering all possible points of view and not making automatic assumptions about the character of the people involved; but remembering that we were all young, dumb, and full of cum at one point in life and everyone makes mistakes; also to not throw stones particularly when we all live in glass houses.
Finally, I am glad that I went into reading this without knowing exactly where the story was going. It made me realize that I assign my preconceived notions of people with barely a thought. I am glad that I finished reading it entirely, and was made to see the error of my ways. If I knew what the novel was about before I started reading it I would have appreciated the story and enjoyed it, but maybe not have taken the lessons away as much as I did.