Young Jane Young: A Novel
- By Gabrielle Zevin
- Algonquin Books
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Avery J.C. Kleinman
- October 9, 2017
A woman creates a new identity after a high-profile love affair becomes public.
After the names of the actual characters in the book, there’s one name that comes up more than any other in Young Jane Young: Monica Lewinsky.
It makes sense; the plot centers around a young female intern who has an affair with a high-ranking politician. Once the relationship becomes public, she is vilified in the press and left with a reputation that makes future employment difficult. The reputation of the politician, on the other hand, remains relatively intact, and his stardom is only slightly tarnished in the long term.
Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin, explores the story behind the all-too-common scandal: What happens after the affair? Who are the other people affected — besides just the secret lovers? And, most significantly, how do the people involved deal with the emotional fallout once the press moves on to the next big story?
Ultimately, the book is the whatever happened to? tale of the so-called other woman.
In Young Jane Young, the other woman is Aviva Grossman, a college-aged intern getting her first taste of the career she wants to pursue one day: politics. She lands a job working for Congressman Aaron Levin. Her family once lived next door to the Levins, and her physician father had operated on the congressman. Could her parents help her land a job?
They can, but it’s a move they come to regret once Aviva’s affair, which begins not long after her internship does, becomes public. The press, unsurprisingly, paints Aviva as a caricature we all recognize — the red-lipstick-wearing vamp who seduces her boss because she wants to get ahead.
So, whatever happened to Aviva Grossman? She runs away from home and takes on a new identity: Jane Young.
The reader meets her a decade after she moves to Maine to start over. She’s working as a successful wedding planner, and her assistant is her own daughter, Ruby. Things come to a head when Jane decides to run for town mayor, and Ruby discovers her true identity and then runs away to meet the congressman from long ago.
Ruby is immensely likeable and, despite being only 10 years old throughout most of the book, her one-liners make the novel a joy to read. When someone says she has a great name, she retorts, “Thanks, I’ve had it all my life.” When her mother tells her, “The only past you have a right to know about is your own,” she answers, “And the people you have to study for history class.”
Ruby is disarmingly smart in both a clever way (“An interesting fact about ‘painstaking’ is that it is pronounced ‘pain-staking’ when it should be pronounced ‘pains-taking’ because what you are doing is taking pains”) and a wise-beyond-her-years way (“The things we don’t have are sadder than the things we have…The things we don’t have exist in our imaginations, where they are perfect”).
The novel shifts perspectives, beginning with Aviva’s mother, Rachel, then Aviva’s new identity, Jane Young, then her daughter, Ruby, then the congressman’s wife, Embeth, and finally, to Aviva herself during the affair. With each character, the writing takes on a distinct voice, as well as a change in narration style.
Zevin adeptly and playfully manages these shifts. While Rachel and Jane’s sections are told in the first person and Embeth’s in the third, Ruby’s is told through a series of emails she sends to her Indonesian pen pal. Aviva’s is told in the style of a “choose your own adventure” book.
The characters we never get inside the heads of? The men — even the one whom the story hinges upon, Congressman Levin. That absence is apropos: It seems that so often women are left to deal with cleaning up the messy aftermath of life’s twists and turns, while men move confidently forward.
Throughout Zevin’s exploration of how women manage this behind-the-scenes work runs the question: Can you ever really escape your past? By the end of Young Jane Young, the question has shifted: Should you even have to?
Avery J.C. Kleinman is a writer and audio producer living in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter at @averyjck.