For women it’s a different world, thank God

Review: Vivien Horler

Mrs Everything, by Jennifer Weiner (Piatkus)

I remember as a small girl in the 1950s, being told to sit with my knees together like “a little lady”. I remember overhearing my mother once telling my dad, apologetically, that she couldn’t seem to interest me in domestic matters, like cooking.

It was such a different world from the one we’ve partly inherited, partly created today. Expectations, particularly of women, have changed so much, thank God.

Mrs Everything is a family saga about two Jewish sisters growing up in Detroit in the 1950s, and how expectations can be turned upside down. There is Jo, tomboyish and the despair of her mother, and Bethie, sweet, pretty and biddable.

The book opens with the Kaufman family moving from an apartment in the poor part of town to a nice house with a lawn in the suburbs. Proud that he has been able to buy it for his family, Jo’s dad tells his wife this is “the American dream”.

He sets up a picture of them in front of the house, but Jo ruins it. She hates girly clothes, she feels as though she’s in disguise when forced to wear lacy socks and puffed-sleeve dresses.

Jo doesn’t know how to fit in, how to be good, like Bethie. Later she realises she likes girls much more than boys, and that she really is different.

But years later life has turned out not as planned. Jo is the wife who stays home with her daughters, while Bethie has joined the counter culture, going to music festivals and enthusiastically embracing drugs and free love, all against a background of Vietnam, Woodstock and women’s lib.

This is a love story – occasionally a fairly raunchy one – but it is also about expectations met and unmet, about being Jewish in a largely non-Jewish society, racism, and frustration.

It is also about how sisters can blame each other for the way their lives develop, about guilt, and eventually about feeling whole and accepted in one’s own body.

And it illustrates the change in society from the 60s to now, from a time when an abortion can upend a life to the present when an unplanned pregnancy is not a disaster and the resulting baby is accepted and loved.

It’s a different world.

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