Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner, a tale of two Jewish sisters across 70 years

Spanning seventy years in two sisters’ lives, this is Jennifer Weiner’s first historical novel, and it’s an impressive one. As children, Jo and Bethie Kaufman feel slotted into categories: Jo the sports-loving tomboy who perplexes their rigid mother, and Bethie the pretty, well-behaved daughter. It’s 1951, and the Kaufmans have moved from multi-ethnic downtown Detroit to a “safe” Jewish neighborhood. To better assimilate, their black maid, Mae, is replaced, and with her goes Mae’s daughter, Jo’s good friend.

Bethie and Jo’s probable paths get derailed by several awful events. Over the decades, through college at Michigan and other happenings related in richly detailed yet swiftly-paced prose, their roles turn inside out. Jo, a lesbian and social activist, finds herself a suburban mother of three, and Bethie, who loses herself in ‘60s counterculture, becomes a restless adventurer. Jo loves her children, but neither woman is content, a feeling they see about the other but can’t acknowledge in themselves. Circumstances change, but the return to happiness is complicated.

Poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” In her introduction, Weiner says she has this quote in mind while writing, and it fits her honest, feminist approach. Through Jo and Bethie’s experiences, she shows how women support and fail one another, and how the pressure to conform to society’s expectations takes a different shape in each era. Jo and Bethie are white, but Weiner also shows how women of color had an even tougher road.

There are many seamless cultural references, from civil rights picketing to Joan Baez at Newport (and if you’re of a certain age, you may get the Jell-O jingle stuck in your head). Smart, authentic, and full of human nature’s internal truths, Mrs. Everything is more than “fiction for women”—it’s a vibrant American story.

Mrs. Everything was published by Atria this summer, and I'd read it from an Edelweiss e-copy and reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review.  You can read more about the background to the novel, including details on how Jo's character was partly inspired by her mother's life, in Weiner's interview with Parade Magazine.

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