Book reviews, Comedy, Literary fiction

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

Young Jane Young is a book about youth, reinvention and reputation in the digital age. I loved it so prepare for a gushing review!

Young Jane Young

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

Aviva Grossman, an ambitious Congressional intern in Florida, 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, labelled 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 starts over as a wedding planner, tries 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. These days, 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.

What’s good about it?

Young Jane Young is a rather wonderful book. I raced through it in a couple of sittings and adored Zevin’s fast-paced, witty and observant narrative.

The main event of the novel – Aviva’s affair with an older Congressman – is seen from three different perspectives: Aviva’s mother, Rachel, Aviva and Ruby, Aviva’s daughter. This tri-generational structure gives the book real depth as each section explores the viewpoint of its narrator while also illustrating the subtle social shifts in the judgement and treatment of women deemed to have done wrong.

All three women are tremendously likeable – Rachel the acerbic, witty Jewish mother, Aviva/Jane the strong single mother and Ruby the precocious girl who is wise beyond her years. The narrative structure reflects their ages and mindsets, and Zevin beautifully captures their inherent commonalities and unique differences.

Young Jane Young has been described as a political scandal told from a woman’s point of view. It certainly does that. The consequences of the affair for Aviva are far more significant and lengthy than those of the Congressman, the older, wiser and married one who should have known better. Comparisons to the Scarlet Letter and Monica Lewinsky are made throughout and there are obvious parallels with both; the Puritan view of female sexuality is given succour in a digital age where scandals can be repeated hourly on newsfeeds hungry for gossip.

“The discovery of your shame is one click away.”

In fact, the internet and digital communications play a huge role in this book. They help Aviva’s career in the first instance – she is the only intern capable of creating a blog and carrying out a Google search – and then ruin it by ensuring her online diary and dalliances in the press are digitally preserved forever more. In one poignant line, Aviva claims “the discovery of your shame is one click away” and that is heartbreakingly true for women who are caught up in anything that might tarnish their reputations. I would have said “people” in that line but online shame is certainly something that is assigned to women in the 21st century – whether it be to archive scandals, to share revenge porn or slut shame, men seem to escape the gaze of Google while women continue to be judged by it.

Young Jane Young is ultimately a book about choice, about defining life on your own terms. The poor and naive choices of Aviva’s youth follow her throughout her adulthood until she faces them head on. The final section is Jane’s voice and uses the structure of a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Book’. Choices are laid out in front of Jane and clearly show where she make dubious decisions or willfully ignores the moral path. In eventually refusing to be ashamed of her past, Jane embraces her choices and acknowledges that even the bad ones made her who she is.

The fact that Young Jane Young ends with the line “you choose” sums up the message of this life-affirming and hilarious book.

What’s not so good about it?

Not a thing – I loved everything about this book.

Young Jane Young is a very warm and witty novel but don’t let its apparently light-hearted offerings fool you. The book is deep and provides a cutting indictment of the inequalities of the sexes when it comes to sex, scandal and reputation. Read it now.

Thanks to NetGalley and Little Brown for the ARC. Young Jane Young is released on 22 August 2017.

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