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Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

A scene showcasing the perils of online dating also proffers a startlingly clever piece of exposition which, in turn, neatly explains how Aviva Grossman became Jane Young, the protagonist of Gabrielle Zevin’s blistering take on a political sex scandal and its aftermath, Young Jane Young.

That Zevin is a masterful writer who can trace a smooth parabola from pratfall-comedic to arch to deeply contemplative is already known to readers of her 2014 New York Times bestseller, The Storied Life of A J Fikry (published in New Zealand as The Collected Works of A J Fikry), another tale about the type of women Zevin favours: steel-spined and redoubtable, yet with a fulsome sense of humour.

Loosely, young Aviva Grossman, working for state senator and family acquaintance Aaron Levine in south Florida, has a biographical doppelganger in the figure of Monica Lewinsky (who scores a meta shout-out from Aviva). Like Lewinsky, Aviva is shamed for an affair which Bill Clinton might argue didn’t entirely meet the definition of “sexual relations”; Aviva too is derided – and by her own mother, the dauntless Rachel – as a “Jewish-American princess”; and after the house of cards has collapsed Aviva does what Lewinsky surely longed to, by changing her name and starting a new life as a planner of events, mostly weddings, in the picturesque town of Allison Springs, Maine.

As we pick up the story of Jane Young, a name perhaps chosen for its ungoogleable properties, she is 33 with an eight-year-old daughter, Ruby, whose father is “not in the picture”. Ruby’s email exchanges with an Indonesian pen pal endow her with a narrative voice as full and fierce as her mother’s, and by age 13 she is conversant with the concepts of patriarchy and slut-shaming, the latter definition she understands to be “when a woman is too free and it pisses people off.”

Ruby has pressed Jane for information about her father to no avail, but in the end it’s her mother’s history that lies in wait, as a furious Ruby storms out of Maine and towards the hometown of Aviva Grossman. Here Zevin issues a pointed reminder, sweetened with lashings of wit, that the past is merely prologue: Embeth Levine, waiting for her erstwhile, 10-term congressman husband at the party to celebrate their 30th anniversary, confronts her role in preserving his reputation in the face of scandal, and ponders the suffocating symbiosis of political spouses: “What if Embeth didn’t intervene and fix things for Aaron? . . . Weren’t there some wives who were protected from the truth at all costs?”

Young Jane Young’s cluster of tarnished marriages is not a novel to make you think well of that blessed institution, but its women – in adolescence and advancing adulthood – are a glorious and full-throated crew. They are allowed to make mistakes, harness courage and eschew ignominy and scapegoating. They are allowed to be inconsistent, prideful and concerned with the value of a good name.

After the car accident that leads to the affair revelations, Aaron pursues his career unharnessed, while Aviva, finding all doors closed on her, thinks of Hester Prynne, forced to stand in the town square for an afternoon, and believes she will herself “be standing in that square forever.” Spoiler: she will not. In Young Jane Young, Zevin sketches a second act of an American life that warrants a standing ovation.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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