Young Jane Young
By Gabrielle Zevin. (Algonquin, 294 pages, $26.95.)
It’s been 20 years — 20 years! — since the saga of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton. So some may not know the story. But they can google it, which is the point of “Young Jane Young.” To Zevin’s credit, she doesn’t pretend that her character, Aviva Grossman, is based on anyone other than Lewinsky, although the love interest in this book is a congressman, not the president. Lewinsky may seem encased in historic amber, but Zevin reminds us that famous sluts — it’s an operative word in the novel — grow up, even while contending with Google’s eternal memory.
In this novel, Zevin looks at a sex scandal from five perspectives: Aviva’s mother, Rachel; Jane Young, an event planner in Maine; Jane’s 13-year-old daughter Ruby; the congressman’s wife, Embeth. The fifth voice is Aviva’s as a congressional intern, rendered in a “choose your adventure” format that puts you, the reader, in her shoes. The technique first seems eye-rollingly clever, yet ends up creating a discomfiting sense of empathy, posing the question: Can we be forgiven for our mistakes? Can we let people move on from errors?
But don’t get too focused on reliving Monicagate. Zevin’s characters are far more compelling. Ruby’s pen-pal correspondence perfectly captures teen angst and energy. Embeth’s imaginary parrot may seem all too real to those coping with trauma. Rachel’s back story of dating while aging is a novel in itself. But it’s Jane’s reinvention of herself that drives the toughest questions about social media, our fickle appetite for scandal, our compulsion to shame — especially slut-shame — and ultimately how choosing to confront the past can deny it of its power.
Zevin will be at Literature Lovers’ Night Out at 7 p.m. Sept. 6, Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, sponsored by Excelsior Bay Books; $11 tickets are online at Brownpapertickets.com or at 952-401-0932. Also, 7 p.m. Sept. 7, Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater, sponsored by Valley Bookseller; $11 tickets may be reserved by calling 651-430-3385.
Midwinter Break By Bernard MacLaverty.
(W.W. Norton, 243 pages, $24.95.)
This tender, affecting novel takes place over several days when Gerry and Stella Gilmore fly from their home in Scotland to Amsterdam for a short vacation. Married many years, they have grown accustomed to each other’s quirks and to reading each other’s thoughts. But both have secrets.
Gerry is a drinker. He plans ahead to make sure he has whiskey, stashes bottles in clever hiding spots, puts a washcloth under his glass to muffle the noise, runs water in the bathroom to conceal the sound of clinking ice.
The devoutly Catholic Stella is not fooled, but she’s been married too long and is too weary to challenge him. Plus, she has her own agenda, as this quiet story slowly reveals.
In Amsterdam, they walk the city, see the sights, tour the Anne Frank house and the red light district, stop in Irish pubs “for a drinkypoo,” Gerry says. MacLaverty tells the story first through Gerry’s eyes, then through Stella’s. The trip unfolds almost moment by moment in quotidian details that are somehow mesmerizing: “She carried her washbag into the bathroom. Gerry could see her reflected in a mirror opposite the doorway. She tore off the pleated paper from a bar of soap and inhaled it. ‘I’ll have the luxury of a bath or two in here,’ she shouted. She took out her plastic bag of creams and tubes and artificial tears and set them on a ledge.”
The slow pace and intimate details magnify the distance between the two. That they love each other is not in question; whether or not the marriage will survive most definitely is.
MacLaverty’s gorgeous prose is tactile and understated (“The canal water darkened here and there under the wind, like a finger across suede”) and the poignancy of his story fills the reader with yearning. The book ends in a snowstorm that evokes James Joyce’s “The Dead.” It might seem contrived from a lesser writer, but in this case it feels just right.