'Young Jane Young' Is A Political Sex Scandal, Told Through Women's Eyes

Aug 20, 2017
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A young inexperienced intern, a married politician, a covert affair that becomes salacious fodder for talk shows and a rapacious public. In Gabrielle's Zevin's new novel "Young Jane Young," the story, reminiscent of course of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, is told through the eyes of four female characters at different stages in their lives.

Gabrielle Zevin joins us now from Culver City, Calif., to talk about what one critic at Kirkus said is the most immaculate takedown of slut-shaming in literature or anywhere else. That's quite an endorsement. Welcome to the program.

GABRIELLE ZEVIN: Thank you so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We all know this story. Or I guess we think we know this story. Is that why you wanted to retell this tale?

ZEVIN: I mean, I don't think of it as a retelling because of Aviva Grossman is not Monica Lewinsky. However, I think looking back on the scandal and my own perceptions of it - I'm a couple of years younger than Monica - and I remember feeling very judgmental of her as a young woman. And now I am 39 years old, and so that makes me about 10 years younger than Bill Clinton at the time of the scandal. And as a woman who is a grown-up woman, I feel very judgmental of him to tell you the truth (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned Aviva Grossman. She is, of course, the intern at the heart of this tale. We meet her at two different stages in her life. Tell us a little bit about the Aviva that you created.

ZEVIN: Yeah. I think Aviva Grossman is a character who is like many young women - and not just women who enter politics but women who enter many fields. And they decide they are going to become an intern, and they have a boss. And she ends up sleeping with that boss. And I think there are decisions we make when we're young that are certainly not the same decisions we'd make when we're older. And so when I think of myself as a young woman, I think I would have been susceptible to that for sure. I would have been excited for an adventure of that kind. And, you know, anybody who can judge Monica Lewinsky or any young woman has, on some level, lost touch with what it is to be young and to have made a mistake.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You show us Aviva when she was very young making that mistake but also as she becomes a mother herself and the sort of fallout from the decisions that she made when she was younger.

ZEVIN: When I thought about Jane Young - that's the name that of Aviva Grossman takes to sort of move on and move to another town and start her life again. You know, I thought of her. She's about 35 years old. And she could kind of go on forever as a wedding planner, or she could decide that she only has one life and that she is going to do the thing that she feels she's meant to do, which is public service. And she isn't sated by just being a mother. She wants more out of her one life (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the most poignant and complex characters for me was Embeth, the wife of the congressman. And it really struck me the way the wronged woman is normally portrayed in this story is either as a victim or as a heroine who stands by her man.

ZEVIN: Right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Embeth is both and neither.

ZEVIN: Yeah. I mean, I think one of our favorite forms of political theater in the U.S. is the scandal where the woman does literally stand by her man. And she talks about, at one point in her story, you know, what it is to try to pick exactly the right suit jacket. You know, what suit jacket is going to say that, you know - I'm undefeated, I'm a feminist - all of these things at once?

And so I really liked writing Embeth because she had wit that I think is often buried when you have to be a public figure because we don't really like people that are nuanced, funny - and we don't really like women that way, especially if their job is to be a political wife.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is one male character in this, of course, and it's the male politician. We don't get his perspective. But what we know about him is that he escapes all consequences and indeed retains his seat and keeps his marriage while everyone else's life is offended. This is fiction, after all. Why did you let him get away with it?

ZEVIN: Because he usually does, you know (laughter). And I think we get the male point of view almost all the time in everything. So I was fine with not having his point of view in this book. And in a way, he's not completely unscathed because in a way, he kind of stalls out as a congressman in his district, which is not as, certainly, anywhere near as bad as what Aviva takes. But he doesn't become the superstar that I think people hoped he would be. I saw him as much like an Anthony Weiner-type character as I did, you know, Bill Clinton (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

Do you think we've moved on from vilifying women when they are involved in a scandal like this? I mean, what struck me is, like you, I remember the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I remember being judgmental. And I think the conversation has moved on now. Or has it?

ZEVIN: In many ways, I think it has moved on. I think, by the way, if the Lewinsky scandal, which of course is really just the Whitewater scandal - but if the Lewinsky scandal - I always feel bad calling it that - happened today, I don't think social media would allow it to play out in the same way that it did. You know, I think there would be more people objecting to the way that story was being told. And so that's kind of a positive thing maybe about the Internet and social media, though I can certainly find many negative things about it, too. But I don't think we have lost our taste for shaming women. And this is a way we have of disempowering women generally.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I felt the book was an indictment of sort of us, the voyeurs who consume these scandals and judge from afar. And then, you know, we move on. And we don't consider the wreckage of people's lives and the effect that these things have on the real people behind the headlines.

ZEVIN: And the danger is that the Internet doesn't allow those people to move on. And so when we have a culture that is particularly harsh on women for all their missteps, I think it kind of leads directly to the path of why there are only 20 percent of women that serve in Congress, why we - only half of all states have had, you know, a female governor, things like that. I don't think it's that hard to understand why we are not in a nation where we don't have the first female president.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say that this book, though, ends with a very empowering message. Aviva Grossman sort of finds herself and regains her path. Was that message deliberate, the sort of positive message? And what is that message?

ZEVIN: My message - my takeaway as a woman is that, you know, I don't have to participate in a culture that decides to shame women. So I feel like I - if I saw a scandal that was similar to the Monica Lewinsky scandal today, I think the way in which I would take it would be very different.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gabrielle Zevin's new novel is "Young Jane Young." Thank you very much.

ZEVIN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.