A secret life

young jane youngYoung Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin (Little, Brown/ Jonathan Ball)

We’ve all done silly things when we were young and stupid, and mostly we don’t die, nor are we maimed, and we grow up with our reputations more or less intact.

But sometimes our follies are not so easy to shrug off, and this is the theme of this delightful novel by the author of The Collected Works of AJ Fikry.

When the action begins, Aviva Grossman is a 20-year-old student at the University of Miami in Florida, studying politics and Spanish literature.

She gets an unpaid internship in the office of a (sexy, charming, married) Florida congressman, and writes a blog about her experiences. She’s able and smart, but not that smart. The blog is anonymous, and she uses no names, but she goes on writing it even after she and the congressman become lovers.

Of course it all comes out. And who is seen as the baddy in this scenario? Not the congressman, who holds a mea culpa press conference with his supportive wife by his side.

Aviva graduates, but can’t find a job. Her scandal was a nine-day wonder in Florida, but it will not let her go. Every time she applies for something, her prospective employers google her, and up comes the scandal, up comes the blog, with its unfortunate details. Or as she realises: “They didn’t put a scarlet letter on her chest, but they didn’t need to. That’s what the internet is for.”

Eventually she decides the only thing to do is leave Florida, change her name, and make a new life for herself a long way away. She becomes Jane Young, an events planner in a small town in Maine.

But secrets have a way of coming out, especially when, nearly 20 years later, she stands for election as mayor of the town.

The novel is written with a charmingly light touch, but it examines some serious issues, such as slut-shaming – when a woman is blamed for dressing provocatively, or proving to have a sexual nature. One review of Young Jane Young describes it as “the most immaculate takedown of slut-shaming in literature or anywhere else”.

It also looks at feminism today, at the role of the wives of politicians who have to be endlessly supportive regardless of what their husbands get up to (think Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky), and the difficulties of young teens who do not fit in.

The story is told in the voices of Rachel, Aviva’s oy vey Jewish mother; Embeth, the congressman’s long-suffering wife; Ruby, Jane’s teenage daughter; and of the young Aviva and the older and wiser Jane.

I read it with relish.

  • This review is also published in Weekend Argus on Sunday on October 1. For a review  of The Collected Works of AJ Fikry (2014), (also published under the title The Storified life of AJ Fikry) see Blasts from the Past.

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