While a student at the University of Miami in 2001, Aviva Grossman becomes a congressional intern and has an affair with her ex-neighbor, married-congressman boss, Aaron Levin. Under a harsh spotlight when the affair is revealed, Aviva sees no choice but escape. She changes her name, runs away and reinvents herself in a small town in Maine.
The furor of the Lewinsky-esque scandal abates only on Sept. 11 when national attention is drawn elsewhere.
In “Young Jane Young,” New York Times best-selling author Gabrielle Zevin artfully and intentionally weaves the story of Aviva through the eyes of five key personalities, each given a voice in one of the five sections of the book.
The reader has the option of sitting back as events unwind or of noting the clever intent and stylistic choices Zevin uses to relay the train wreck of events while injecting insightful social commentary.
The first section of “Young Jane Young” is told by Aviva’s mother, Rachel Grossman. It reveals the havoc one person’s choices can wreak on those around her. Formerly principal of Boca Raton Jewish Academy, Rachel hopscotches through different stages in her life, relaying events and revealing their consequences.
The subsequent sections are told in the voice of Jane (Aviva in her new life) a dozen or so years later; Jane’s daughter, Ruby, through emails to her pen pal; the congressman’s wife, Embeth; and finally Aviva herself as she comes to terms with her choices and makes decisions about her life going forward.
Included throughout are Zevin’s astute observations about character and life, with pearls and truisms such as:
- She is young, and she does not know what she does not know.
- You’re younger now than you’ll ever be.
- People make their own choices.
- When you think of your mother the word that occurs to you is too. She hugs you too hard, kisses you too long, asks you too many questions, worries too much. … She loves you with an almost religious fervor. She loves you too much.
Zevin, whose novel “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” spent more than four months on the New York Times best-seller list, is coming to Atlanta to promote her ninth novel. She will discuss “Young Jane Young” at the Margaret Mitchell House on Thursday, Sept. 14.
She spoke to the AJT about the book Aug. 25.
AJT: Your use of five sections, each relaying events through a different voice, is unique and effective. Is this the first time you’ve done that?
Zevin: I’ve definitely always played with form throughout my novels, but this is the only one that’s precisely like this. I do think, when I’m writing a book, that the formal choices I make are some of the most important choices I make. I think the way you tell a story is as important as the story itself in many ways, so that was certainly true with “Young Jane Young.” …
Something I’ve been thinking about in my own life is the way a story changes based on the age you are when you are telling it or experiencing it. So I wanted to write a story that reflected that. … In a way, all of the women in the story are telling the same story, or their part of the same story, but I thought it was interesting to see how their ages changed the story itself.
AJT: In addition to a title, for each section you provide the name of the narrator or the point of view from which it is told. You lead with Aviva’s mother, Rachel. Does this point of view create empathy during a scandalous situation?
Zevin: I think sometimes it would be any kind of scandal … we don’t really think about their mothers or their fathers or their daughters because thinking about those people makes us uncomfortable. And so that’s why I led with Rachel’s section. I wanted you to have to really think about what it is to be the mother of somebody in a scandal, and the scandal affects Rachel really deeply. She loses her daughter and for a long time her relationship with her granddaughter. Her marriage ends, and she loses her job. So all these things that are important in her life she loses because of the scandal, so I thought maybe, if you introduce somebody to somebody’s parents, it can make you think differently about the person themselves. And I think we are very quick to shame women in public life — certainly Monica Lewinsky, but there are many other examples of that too.
I also thought of Rachel’s section as being so much about mother’s love. There’s no question she loves Aviva, and yet her love cannot protect Aviva at all. Not only can it not protect her; it actually makes things worse in many ways. So it is the sort of flip side of mother’s love, I guess, in that we can’t save even the things we love the most. And we can’t always help them, either.
AJT: It is interesting that one section is in the voice of Aviva, while in another it is Jane. Is this because it is at a different time of her life?
Zevin: Yes, but in a way Jane doesn’t exist. … Jane Young is the creation of Aviva Grossman, so on some level Jane isn’t even a person, and even in the section that we see with her, I think there is a sort of sadness to her, a sort of emptiness. Other than her daughter, there really aren’t that many people in her life at that point, her mother included. So I think something that does happen at the end of the story is that she has to become Aviva Grossman again.
AJT: Toward the end of the book the central character chooses to run for office. Why did you decide not to tell the outcome of the election?
Zevin: For me, the book isn’t about whether she wins or loses; it’s about her decision to run, to put herself out there. In a way, the vote she makes is a vote for herself. … I think that maybe fear of losing is part of the reason women have a barrier to entering politics at all. So, to me, the point was that she does run at all, and she chooses not to be shamed.
AJT: You used the word “choice.” Is choice a central theme?
Zevin: Yes, choice. I think choice is really key in thinking about women’s lives, thinking about what feminism is, thinking not just about women’s issues, but our ability to act and vote and change government in some way.
AJT: You also bring up subjects like the role of gender in politics and the emphasis on appearances in our society. Do we have any of the answers?
Zevin: We don’t have the answers yet. If it’s difficult to dress to be an intern, imagine how difficult it is for a woman to dress to try to run for president.
Who: Gabrielle Zevin
What: Talk about “Young Jane Young”
Where: Margaret Mitchell House, 979 Crescent Ave., Midtown
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14
Tickets: $10; www.atlantahistorycenter.com or 404-814-4000