Irony is wasted on the young.
The first time that kids born during the Monica Lewinsky scandal were old enough to vote in a presidential election, their choices were Bill Clinton’s wife and a former beauty pageant owner who bragged about sexually assaulting women.
As you may have heard, the Grabber won.
Surely, there will come a time when no one associates Lewinsky’s name with anything unsavory — after all, who now recognizes Nan Britton? (For that matter, who now recognizes Warren Harding?) But we’re not there yet, and the residue of slut-shaming is depressingly persistent.
Last year, Sady Doyle published an incisive book of cultural criticism called “Trainwreck,” about the way women’s lives are “stolen and weaponized” by ravenous media outlets and their insatiable consumers. Doyle points out that the practice long predates Twitter (Consider that hussy Mary Wollstonecraft!), but she demonstrates just how efficiently the latest technology fuels our misogynistic impulses. “As the social media pile-ons and hate-reads keep on coming,” she writes, “it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we have a vast and insatiable appetite for specifically female ruin and suffering.”
I’d like to think that we also have a countervailing appetite for thoughtful stories about female persistence and success, which is why I’m excited about Gabrielle Zevin’s “Young Jane Young.” No matter what your definition of “is” is, this is a redemptive novel inspired by the Lewinsky ordeal.
Zevin, the author of several novels for adults and young people, including “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” has dramatically streamlined the complications of that byzantine political scandal. “Young Jane Young” takes place in Florida, where a 20-year-old intern named Aviva has an affair with a handsome congressman, whom she describes in an anonymous and largely ignored blog. With a nod to Chappaquiddick, their relationship is exposed when they’re involved in a car accident. Aviva is not seriously injured, but the resultant publicity ruins her life, while the congressman walks away with apologies for any pain that his poor judgment may have caused his family or the good people of . . . blah, blah, blah.
But you know all that, and the last thing anyone wants is to be dragged through the Starr Report again, one cigar at a time.
Which is what makes Zevin’s clever approach to this story so appealing. Her novel comes to us in five distinct parts, each focusing on a different woman affected by Avivagate. That structure rotates the scandal in curious ways, and it also shows off just what a clever ventriloquist Zevin is. The first section is a monologue by Aviva’s mother, who’s so chatty, funny and confidential that I felt like we were getting our nails done together. Rachel begins not with her daughter’s famous romantic calamity but with stories about her own late-in-life online-dating travails. Her second gentleman caller had distractingly dirty fingernails. “I mean, what was he doing before he came on this date?” she asks. “Competitive gardening? Burying the last woman he dated?” That comic tone persists even as Rachel shifts to the scandal that rocked Florida, but the real love she feels for her daughter is what gives this section its poignancy and power.
The other sections are equally engaging, though in entirely different ways. One takes us into Aviva’s future when the story of her affair with a much older, married congressman is just a punchline that people barely remember. Another section lets us see the life of that congressman’s long-suffering wife on the occasion of their 30th wedding anniversary. And yet another contains only the chatty emails of a precocious 13-year-old girl.
The most radical chapter, though, is constructed as a choose-your-own-
adventure story. This sort of super-duper-cleverness can start to feel like you’re being force-fed eight pounds of cotton candy, which makes Zevin’s success all the more impressive. Her narration in the second person insists that we stop peering down at this young woman and begin, instead, to imagine ourselves as her. “You have never been in love before and so you don’t know for certain if you are,” she writes. “He is not like anyone you’ve ever known. He’s not like boys your age.” The very grammar of these sentences reminds us of the element of empathy that’s so often missing in our regard for people ruined by the scandals that amuse us.
And even that gimmicky choose-your-own-adventure structure takes on a fascinating thematic role in the context of this story about a series of choices made by two people with very different levels of experience and power. One brief chapter about the toxic publicity ends:
If you decide to never leave your house again and become a Boo Radley-style shut-in, turn to page 114.
If you decide to go on with your life, turn to page 118.
Aviva acknowledges that these stories are “pretty bald morality tales,” meant to be metaphors for real life, “except in Choose Your Own Adventure,” she notes, “you can move backward, and you can choose something else.” In the public square of the Internet, no one’s Scarlet Letter can ever be removed.
Or maybe it can.
Maybe with enough determination and love and support, women can choose their own adventures. They can start, like Aviva, by choosing not to be ashamed. In this life-affirming novel, Zevin doesn’t make that look easy, but she makes it look possible.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
On Sept. 17 at 4 p.m., Gabrielle Zevin will be at East City Bookshop, 645 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Suite 100, Washington.
By Gabrielle Zevin
Algonquin. 294 pp. $26.95