One Affair, Multiple Points of View

by Jacqueline Bull October 31, 2017
 

 

booksYoung Jane Young” by Gabrielle Zevin follows protagonist Aviva Grossman who has an affair with a beloved congressman and the ensuing political scandal. The novel is told non-chronologically and in sections each from a different woman surrounding the incident. These different perspectives breathe life and intrigue into what would otherwise be a very straightforward plot line. Each section has a unique and distinct voice from the others.

The chapter from the point of view of the congressman’s wife is fresh and not all cliché. This section shines with her loneliness, dark humor and exhaustion. Zevin lets the character exist in a nuanced manner and subverts the shrill and ambitious or dumb and subservient political wife tropes. Another section is told by Aviva’s daughter’s emails to her pen pal; it is uncontrived and feels like a genuine person with thoughts and feelings separate from the main plot line. The depiction of youth is not revolutionary, but feels real.

One section that drags the novel down is the first. It is told by the perspective of Aviva’s mother, Rachel. Functionally, her point of view eases us into the overall plot arc and is aiming to show Aviva through an equally sympathetic and judgmental lens. Out of the many colorful, vibrant and unique characters that exist in this novel, the mother dulls. The character does not divert or complicate the expected trope of the ‘overbearing Jewish mother’. The novel lives within complex women to women relationships and Rachel is focused on her weight, her age and online dating. Rachel’s criticisms would have added more, perhaps, if her unflattering view of others were more humorous or if the reader was more invested in her own journey. One of the more satisfying elements of the story is the way the first person narration gives voice to overlooked or at worse dehumanized character types in familiar stories. The mother’s perspective misses that mark because the reader doesn’t discover any hidden gems in Rachel’s character beneath a judgmental and anxious exterior.

Knowing that the affair goes badly and considering the novel spans such a wide frame of time, you can sometimes get the feeling of anticipating a car wreck or reading a novel about someone aboard the Titanic; you can become anxious just waiting for the inevitable.

Even with a straightforward plot line and conversational diction, I would hesitate to throw it into the likes of a ‘beach read’. As the story progresses, picking up details from each character and how they show up and complicate the other narratives is rewarding to the reader. The larger story and the character’s attitudes peek in through subtle details, so a closer read can be fruitful. The story tension follows the traditional narrative arc instead of chronology and the novel moves with excellent pacing.

It would be very easy to label this novel as simply about the double standard for women’s sexuality or a retelling of the Bill Clinton sex scandal. And it is not a tone-deaf story of female warfare or merely banging the drum against slut shaming. The novel brings a human element to headlines and news stories that we experience in our day-to-day.

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