Monday, December 7, 2020

Review: Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

I first read Jennifer Weiner's Good in Bed many years ago and enjoyed it a lot. I have read some (but not all) of her books since then and have mostly liked them too. So when I saw that this was billed as being her most ambitious book, a sprawling family saga about sisters, I was excited to read it. In retrospect, the title really tells you everything you need to know about this book: it's going to be about absolutely everything, which turned out to be just a bit too much.

Jo and Bethie Kaufman live in 1950s Detroit. Jo is a rebellious tomboy while Bethie is the pretty, compliant sister, at least at first. But they are growing up as the country is changing and they change and grow too. Spanning from the 1950s to 2015, this novel is a microcosm of the changing societal expectations of women neatly wrapped up in the characters of these two sisters. Framed by a 2015 narrative that signals to the reader where Jo is in her life now, the story goes back to 1950 to move through the decades, following Jo in her relationship with her mother, especially after the death of her father, her time at college, her wish to live an authentic life that gets squashed with her marriage, her own motherhood, and more. Jo is stifled in her life, by her mother's expectations, by her husband's expectations, by society's expectations, and most importantly her own vision of what her life should look like. Meanwhile, Bethie is growing up too, feeling abandoned by her sister when she needs her most, changing from the picture perfect child into a free spirited hippie drifting through her life until she finally finds safe harbor. Each sister's road twists and turns echoing the growing pains of the nation.

There is a lot of change in the years between 1950 and 2015 and this novel touches on all of them. The sisters are almost Forest Gump like in their involvement or proximity to so many of the major events of the second half of the twentieth century. And all of the social issues that have been (and continue to be) in the forefront of the nation's consciousness make their way into the women's lives as well: feminism, civil rights, illegal drugs, abuse, violence against women, eating disorders, abortion, divorce, mental illness (depression), religion, capitalism, LGBTQ, interracial marriage, immigration, and more. It's a more than 450 page book but that's still too much ground to cover even if the title warns that this will in fact encompass everything. And although there's too much crammed into the narrative, it still feels overly long and drags in places. The historical timeline is completely off and some of the facts, especially about Detroit, are not accurate, taking the reader out of the story. For me, it was the fact that Jo takes a Greyhound bus from Southfield to the camp she works at in the Upper Peninsula in the 60s in an amount of time I can personally make now, with my lead foot and a speed limit of 70-75 but which would have been impossible at the time she's doing it. Small inaccuracies like this caused me to question a lot more (and discover that this was not the only one), keeping me from ever sinking completely into the story. I wanted to love it. I wanted to appreciate the grand sweep of women's history through Jo and Bethie. I wanted to see Jo and Bethie grow and mature and be happy in their own skin, learning to embrace themselves. I wanted to be transported. But I wasn't. I just wasn't. If you read it, I hope you will be though.

1 comment:

  1. A shame it didn’t resonate with you, but a thoughtful review, thanks for sharing


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