Aviva has a seemingly bright future ahead of her, circa 1999/2000. She’s doing well in her classes at the University of Miami, working toward a degree in political science and Spanish, and has recently been promoted from her position as an unpaid intern to a paid job working for her local congressman. It’s all going so well — until her affair with said congressman is made public. Aviva quickly finds herself with no job, no friends, and no prospects. Years later, she has made a life for herself, far away in Maine under a new name, working as an event planner, when she decides to run for mayor. But in the online age, her old scandal is just a Google search away. . . .
I reviewed Zevin’s The Storied Life of AJ Fikry a couple of years ago on the blog. I enjoyed the book but was not particularly motivated to read any of Zevin’s other books. However, recently, Julie suggested that I give Zevin’s latest book, Young Jane Young, a try. This is a very different book than The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, but I actually ended up enjoying it a lot more. (Thanks so much for the great suggestion, Julie!)
The basic plot premise of the story is not necessarily anything new in fiction. There are a lot of books about characters with secret, scandalous pasts, but the way Zevin deals with the material was refreshingly different. The story, at its heart, is not really about Aviva’s run for office.
Instead, the book is more interested in examining the nature of scandal and shame in the internet age and the various perspectives on Aviva’s scandal. These range from Aviva’s own thoughts, both at the time and with many years’ hindsight; her mother’s, which range from revulsion and the urge to protect and defend her daughter; her daughter’s, which is utter horror; and the congressman’s wife, which is, understandably, one of disdain.
Zevin does a great job of giving each character a unique, distinctive voice and delving into their thoughts. She never makes excuses, but the result is a thought-provoking examination of what it is like to be at the center of the scandal, whether as a participant or as a family member of a participant. Sometimes, the perspectives overlap, but the result is never boring because Zevin uses these moments to reveal how very different people’s perceptions of each other often are from the reality of the situation.
She also does a fair amount of experimenting with form, with some of the book consisting of pen pal messages from Aviva’s daughter as she works through her thoughts on her mother and others as a choose-your-own-adventure. Experimenting with form in fiction is tricky, to say the least. I love experimental fiction, but I will also be the first to admit that, sometimes, a book that is too experimental or is sloppily experimental can come off as overly pretentious or even unreadable. However, that does not happen here. In this book, it works really well since it meshes so well with the characters and the themes.
Ultimately, the book is a timely one, but it’s also a very readable book on its own merits. And it also manages to do all that but without being overly dark or heavy. In fact, it’s quite funny at times, but that in no way minimizes its complex examination of scandal, forgiveness, and relationships.
The only complaint I have is that occasionally the way the internet is depicted in late 1990s/early 2000s seems a little too modern, but it’s a small complaint about an otherwise stellar book. I think this would actually be a great book club pick since it would provide so many subjects to discuss.
*Ebook also available on Libby.
Recommended for those who enjoy Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Did you prefer this book or The Storied Life of AJ Fikry? How do you feel about the role of the internet in modern-day scandals? What would be your pick for a book club? Tell us in the comments!