Thank you to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review.
On the surface, Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin (you may know her from The Storied Life of A.J. Fiery) is a cool breeze of a book. It opens in South Florida, “the most Jewish place on earth aside from Israel itself,” with Rachel Grossman recounting her adventures in online dating as a well-preserved sixty-four-year-old woman.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the book contains an unexpected strand of political and social media criticism. More than a decade ago, Rachel’s daughter, Aviva, a young political intern, had an affair with her boss and got caught. Aviva is a thinly veiled Monica Lewinsky and a modern day Hester Prynne. Her boss is a Jewish John F. Kennedy, Jr. who “looks at you like you’re butter and he’s a hot knife” then like you’re “a doll he occasionally remembers to play with.” It is all compulsively readable but also smart, funny and deeply thoughtful.
Aviva moves to a small town in Maine and reinvents herself as Jane Young, a very competent albeit understandably cynical wedding planner. “Sometimes I feel like the wedding is a Trojan horse. The dream I peddle to distract from the reality of the marriage.”
Her precocious, school-age daughter Ruby (think Matilda meets Curly Sue) narrates one section of the novel through letters written to a pen pal in Indonesia. Ruby, very much like her mother, is bullied and handles the situation with grace and bravery.
Then Aviva’s past comes back to haunt her and she crosses paths once again not with her former boss and lover but with his wife.
Zevin writes with a dry wit that is so appealing in its directness. “English was not his first language, and he seemed frightened of pronouns.” She compares political marriages to human trafficking and depicts men as casually misogynistic. She also has a sharp eye for the nuances of generation. The youth believe “everyone was very important, and very under appreciated, and very underpaid” and the aging fear that “someday soon … the switch would stick there, and [they] would never be seen again.”
The author also plays with form in highly inventive and entertaining ways. A part of the book is told in the structure of a Choose Your Own Adventure story.
Kirkus Reviews called Young Jane Young “the best thing to come out of the Monica Lewinsky scandal since Lewinsky’s own magnificent TED talk,” and I couldn’t agree more.
Best paired with a glass of champagne, a plate of falafel balls, a side of hummus and baklava for dessert.