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BookBrowse Reviews Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

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Mrs. Everything

by Jennifer Weiner

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner X
Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2019, 480 pages

    Paperback:
    Apr 2020, 480 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis
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This character-driven novel traces the lives of two sisters who navigate crosscurrents of tradition and rebellion during an era of rapid social change.

Mrs. Everything spans six decades of an American family. We meet the Kaufman sisters Josette 'Jo' and Elizabeth 'Bethie' in 1951 Detroit. The girls grow up during an era where civil rights and women's roles will be challenged and transformed. Their mom Sarah, however, is not liberated. She's intolerant of any behavior that doesn't conform with tradition; she has difficulty making ends meet, especially after her husband dies unexpectedly. As Jo and Bethie come of age, the sisters struggle to form healthy bonds, find their own voices, and move beyond a strict upbringing.

Jo grows up with a vague sense of being attracted to girls, at a time when being gay was taboo, dangerous, and in many states illegal. In college, eager to rebel against her repressive upbringing, Jo participates in civil rights protests and carries on a clandestine relationship with her college sweetheart, Shelley. After an intense romance, Shelley withdraws and marries a parent-approved man. Jo is devastated, but she resigns herself to circumstance. She meets and marries Dave, learns to be a suburban housewife, and gives birth to three daughters. It's a lonely road until years later chance reunites Shelley and Jo, offering them a second shot at love.

In comparison to Jo, Bethie is considered pretty, popular, and normal during her youth. Signs of nonconformity are still present at an early age; during high school, Bethie makes friends with Harold, one of the only black kids at school. The younger sister's life veers off-trail in college, when she falls in love with drug dealer Devon and embraces a wild lifestyle of drugs, sex, and music festivals. Dev fashions himself as a countercultural rebel, but he epitomizes toxic masculinity, holding deeply misogynistic views about women.

"He complained about his sisters and their small, conformist lives; he made fun of their little houses and their safe suburbs, but he liked it when [Bethie] looked like all the other girls in their crowd, and he liked having dinner on the table at seven o'clock."

Living with Dev, Bethie makes a series of mistakes in her twenties that lead to trouble. She has nobody to count on except her sister, Jo, who abandons an around-the-world backpacking trip to come to Bethie's temporary rescue. After much tumult Bethie shakes off Dev; later, she serendipitously reconnects with Harold, and a romance between the old friends blossoms.

One reason I love this novel is the nuanced portrayal of sisters with incredibly different personalities and motivations. Through the years their lives connect and disconnect. There are some long interludes of misunderstanding and communication lapses. And yet, the sisters often show up for each other in unexpected ways, loving each other and learning from each other as they grow through life's stages.

Weiner plays with expectations versus realities throughout the novel. Jo—who as a girl was always a restless rule-breaker—lives a quiet suburban lifestyle as an adult. Straight Bethie eventually finds herself at home in a women's commune based on feminist and back-to-the-earth values. There's incredible dramatic tension created when a character's most reliable friend and true love happens to be the same gender (Jo) or a different race (Bethie). If all you need is love, what if that love is judged as immoral, deviant, or illegal?

While the main storyline follows Jo, later chapters explore the diverse lifestyles of her daughters, Kim, Melissa, and Lila. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, they believe they are free to be whoever they want to be, yet still experience limits based on class and gender expectations. Kim becomes a corporate attorney and mother; Melissa works for a male chauvinist editor in the era before #MeToo; the youngest, Lila, drifts with bohemian friends, driven by artistic ambition. The novel dramatizes generations of female rage and rebellion.

Weiner's inspiration for the novel is deeply personal. From the author's foreword: "I always knew that I wanted to write about a woman like my mother, who was born in the 1940s and came of age in the 1960s, who married a man, had children, got divorced, and ended up falling in love with a woman, watching same-sex marriage become legal, and living a life that would not have been possible forty years ago."

Book groups: gather those vintage gelatin dessert recipes and hunker down for astonishing discussions. This novel holds power to crack through decades of silence, family secrets, and hidden aspects of self.

Reviewed by Karen Lewis

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in July 2019, and has been updated for the April 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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