In Gabrielle Zevin’s new novel, Young Jane Young, an ambitious twenty-something intern’s life is ripped open when her affair with her very married boss, who happens to be a widely popular Florida congressman, is exposed to the public. Zevin’s protagonist, Aviva Grossman is forced to endure the Mary Magdalene inspired casting of many stones for her transgression. In an attempt to escape the probing news cameras and supermarket rags spilling the sordid details of her dalliance with the congressman, Aviva changes her name, skips town, and tries to reinvent herself as a party planner.
If Aviva’s story reminds you of a scandal involving another young intern and a philandering politician, then you would be right. The similarities of Young Jane Young with the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the 90s, are certainly too obvious too ignore. But Zevin’s plot is witty and fresh enough to not make it read like a carbon copy, but instead makes it a much more general issue that denounces the injustice of female shaming.
There are additional catchy twists, like Aviva’s mother having a point of view in the novel almost as prominent as Aviva herself. The stigma also follows Jane (née Aviva) around when she is pushed to run for office in the small town in which she has found some sort of refuge, only for the secret of who she truly is to be discovered and her life is dragged once again through the mud, this time witnessed by her daughter Ruby who is oblivious of her mother’s past.
During a phone interview, Gabrielle Zevin reveals what sparked the idea of Young Jane Young, and how society’s shaming of women has become blatantly worse with the permanently looming shadow of the Internet.
Which writers have inspired your own work as an author?
I think a writer is a collection of everything they’ve ever read, and I can be influenced equally by cereal boxes or CNN news clips. For me, as a novelist an in terms of what has inspired me, I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the oldest subjects in fiction, female shame, which goes all the way back to the bible itself. Obviously an early American novel like (for example) the Scarlet Letter is all about female shame and public shaming.
Hester Prynne wearing the letter “A” and standing in the public square for about three hours, is just horrible for her. But as horrible as that is, if you make that kind of mistake today, you’re pretty much stuck in that public square forever because the Internet never forgets. So that novel was very inspiring to me. Black Water was also a book I was very impressed with when I was college because Joyce Carol Oates is so prolific and wonderful..
How long have you been working on Young Jane Young?
It wasn’t ready to become a book until the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton primary. I’ve been thinking about Monica Lewinsky for many years, and I remember when that scandal happened, being very judgemental of her. Now at the age I am, I judge Bill Clinton more, and think how completely wrong it was to behave that way with a young intern.
Do you think readers will immediately associate the character of Aviva with Monica Lewinsky?
I think they will, but other than how enormous that story was, it was the first real Internet scandal, ground zero for this kind of shaming. And they will definitely bring Monica Lewinsky to it, but it’s almost a cliché; the young intern harassed by her boss. But this doesn’t apply only to her story.
Aviva’s mother Rachel has quite a large narrative in the novel. Why was her story as important as Aviva’s?
I think it’s interesting what these sorts of scandals do to a family. Aviva’s mother Rachel is an interesting character because she wants to do everything to keep her daughter out of trouble, and she actually makes things worse over and over again. And it was interesting, the idea that we love someone and we want to help (him or her) but it ends having the reverse effect and actually harms the person in some way.
You can read a story and it can feel different depending on what age you are when you read it. Each of the sections of the book are very much affected by the age of the characters, so that was another reason for wanting to focus on Rachel, because the scandal actually costs her a great deal.
It doesn’t seem like Aviva truly connects with her daughter, Ruby. She often seems distant with her.
I don’t really see it that way. Certainly the epistolary nature of Ruby’s section in the book makes her feel distant because we’re not even getting her in the first person. Perhaps the distance is due to the fact that there’s a huge secret between them, but even though they are actually very close to each other and spend more time with each other than anybody else on the planet, a secret that’s so big is not going to be a great environment for true intimacy.
Which character challenged you the most?
To me, the more time I spend writing characters, the more I have to really empathize with them to write them at all. So I’m really eager to give my characters their day in court, and for them to be able to explain themselves fully. I don’t embark on a character until I feel like I really know them.
What would you like readers to take away from Young Jane Young?
That there is a link between the way we shame women and the fact that we don’t have parity when it comes to women in elected offices. I hope people can think about this, because the book in many ways speaks of shame and shaming. And while shame is something a person imposes upon themselves, shaming is a thing that society imposes on people and on women in far greater numbers than men. From my point of view, I have some ability to control the way I participate in a culture that shames women, and I hope that’s what Young Jane Young does. I hope it challenges the shaming narrative that we have.