fiction

Mrs. Everything- Jennifer Weiner

There’s been a huge amount of buzz about Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner (Atria Books, 2019), and, having read six of her other books in the past, I knew I’d eventually get to this one! And as luck would have it, it came up as a suggestion for PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge for a book that passes the Bechdel test (wherein two women must have a conversation which is about something other than a man, and which was named after the cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel, a fact I didn’t know about until just now!). This book passes that test in spades and is an all-around fabulous read.

Mrs. Everything covers the entire lives of sisters Jo and Bethie Kaufman, born in the baby boom of post-WWII America and coming of age in the turbulent 60’s as the world writhed and changed around them. Jo, the elder of the two, is athletic, always at odds with their mother, and understands early on that she’s different from other girls. Bethie, a people pleaser and their mother’s clear favorite, changes trajectory after the terrible aftermath of death of their father and struggles to find herself and her place in the world. The sisters’ relationship ebbs and flows, internal and external pressures playing a large part on how they relate to and support one another. This is an opus, a love letter to all the women out there who do their best and can only try, fail, and try again.

(Content warnings exist for molestation by a family member, rape, abortion, drug use, homophobia, disordered eating, difficult parent/child relationships, cancer, and death.)

There are a lot of themes running throughout this book, and one of them is the changing role of women in society over the years. Jo and Bethie’s mother had almost no choices in life; Jo and Bethie had more, but still nowhere near acceptable; Jo’s daughters have far more, but it’s still not enough, and the novel ends acknowledging that while women have come so far, it’s absolutely not enough, that men are given passes in parenting and the career world that women aren’t even thought of being granted. Jo makes an astute observation that both she and Bethie kind of fell into their lives, rather than making active choices to create the lives they wanted, and I have to wonder how true that statement is for women in general today. It certainly was for me.

There’s a lot of sadness in this book, as there is in everyone’s life. Jo, whose attraction to women can’t ever really be lived out in the open in her young adulthood, lives what feels like only a half-life, struggling to find a place for herself while taking care of her beloved children and the husband who, as time goes on, feels like less and less of a safe haven. Bethie’s entire self nearly disappears after being molested and raped, and she flits around the world, trying to both lose and discover herself and realizing she can’t run from her pain, nor can she force her sister to live more authentically. It’s all one step forward, two steps back for the Kaufman sisters, a tale as old as time and one that we’re still seeing today.

Despite the sadness, this is a view of two very different lives over a turbulent period of time, a time of growth and a time of difficult realizations. Jennifer Weiner writes with clarity and insight, and even when the subject manner is painful, her tone is light enough that Mrs. Everything is a comfort read, like hearing stories from your own beloved friends and sisters. This was the perfect book to follow up my last read, Dahlia Adler’s His Hideous Heart, an anthology of Poe retellings. I desperately needed something that made me feel hope again, and this fit the bill well.

Have you read this or any of Jennifer Weiner’s other novels? Are you a fan? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Visit Jennifer Weiner’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

YA

The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali- Sabina Khan

I’m not sure the route by which this ended up on my TBR. Was it from a Book Riot article on Muslim authors? Due to a fellow book blogger’s review? Could go either way on this, but I knew that I wanted to read The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan (Scholastic Press, 2019) almost immediately; the premise of the story ticked so many of my ‘THIS IS FASCINATING; MUST READ’ boxes.

I love when that happens. What didn’t happen was this being at the library the first two or three times I looked for it, which is both frustrating (for me!) and wonderful, because it means other people are reading it. Hurray for you, other local people! You have awesome taste in books.

Rukhsana Ali is seventeen, Muslim, Bengali-American…and a lesbian. Having a secret girlfriend isn’t something she can share with her uber-conservative parents, so she sneaks around, sneaks out, hides who she really is, nods and smiles and grits her teeth when her mother talks about Rukhsana getting married (seriously, Mom! College first, especially now that Rukhsana has a full ride to Cal Tech!). Her stress levels aren’t helped by her friends, who don’t get how uptight her parents are and how difficult it is to hide such a huge part of herself. Even Ariana, her girlfriend, doesn’t quite get it.

But all good schemes must come to an end, and when Rukhsana’s parents learn of Ariana, they hustle her off to Bangladesh (no matter that it’s near the end of senior year. Exams, what???), supposedly to visit her ailing grandmother, but the longer they’re there, Rukhsana begins to suspect their motives weren’t quite honest. And when arranged marriage becomes very real and very immediate, Rukhsana will have to dig deep, find all the strength she’s gathered from reading her grandmother’s diary, and fight for who she loves and who she truly is.

Remember that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where the dude thrusts his fist into another man’s chest and rips out his beating heart? Reading this will make you feel like the second guy, your heart torn from your chest and paraded around by the author for everyone to see. At times, Rukhsana’s options are so limited and her parents, especially her mother, so dictatorial and insensitive, I felt claustrophic about her situation and her future. Her friends are both wonderful and frustrating, in that they don’t fully listen to her concerns and don’t try to understand the difficulties her cultural ties present in coming out; her relationship with Ariana is a typical teenage romance, in that they’re obviously in love but still learning how to communicate and navigate more mature emotional territory. Sweet, but also occasionally frustrating for both Rukhsana and the reader.

But Rukhsana’s parents. Hooooooo boy. Her father doesn’t get as much air time as her mother; Mom is…an uncomfortable-to-read character for the majority of the book. She’s the main source of homophobia and bigotry, and some of the things she says to her daughter and the ways she tries to remedy Rukhsana’s homosexuality are horrifying. Her grandmother, however, is an absolute gem; everyone should have a grandmother who loves them so unconditionally.

Content warnings: there’s a lot of homophobia and anti-gay slurs in the book; a character is murdered because he’s gay; there’s a diary entry that details marital rape and spousal abuse, and a later one that, quite chillingly and almost unexpectedly, includes child molestation (if not child rape; it’s not specified). Ms. Khan’s style is light, which helps the book stay away from Dementor-style darkness, but it’s still not a fun or safe-feeling read.

There’s a massive turnaround that I don’t want to spoil; some readers have complained that it felt a bit whiplashy and unrealistic. I totally understand that, and I also get how said turnaround could have happened, when the characters who experienced it were confronted with the consequences of the exact same attitudes that they had. It’s understandable, and personally, while I wouldn’t have been quite as forgiving as Rukhsana was, at least not so quickly, it did make for a pleasant ending.

The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali is a gut-punch of a YA novel, and was definitely worth the wait. I hope the other library patrons who checked it out before me enjoyed it as much as I did.

Visit Sabina Khan’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

The Drowning of Stephan Jones- Bette Greene

Another book that’s been on my TBR for years. Always good to clear out some of that backlog, right? We’re talking YEARS, like probably since around 2005. You may be more familiar with the author’s more well-known work, Summer of My German Soldier; that one tends to make a lot of high school reading lists, but I didn’t read it until my early 20’s. I learned of The Drowning of Stephan Jones by Bette Greene (Laurel Leaf, 1991) from a friend, and her review had me rushing to put it on my list. Now, all these years later, it’s a dated but unfortunately still relevant and poignant read.

Content warnings abound. This book is about hatred and homophobia that runs deep enough to kill, and the pages are filled with an enormous amount of slurs and prejudice, much of it coming from people purporting to be Christian, including a pastor, including during sermons (it does happen; my husband witnessed it while attending a church in Louisiana in 2005. He didn’t return). There are multiple instances of violence, including a murder by- as the title suggests- drowning, and the book ends as so many of these cases do, without a clear sense of justice. Consider what you’re ready to handle at the time before selecting this book; it’s a painful read.

Carla Wayland is suuuuuuuuuper in love with Andy Harris. He’s gorgeous and popular, he’s smart, he works in his dad’s hardware store… It seems almost impossible that he could be into her, too, but there he is, asking her out. There’s just one little problem: an incident Carla witnessed at the hardware store, involving the way Mr. Harris, Andy’s father, treated two gay men. At first, Carla’s sure that Andy is on her side; those two men weren’t hurting anyone, but Andy’s firmly in his father’s camp, repeating all the Bible verses about homosexuality (and conveniently ignoring the entire rest of the book, of course). Irritated by her librarian mother’s politcal and social activism, Carla’s willing to giggle and overlook Andy’s virulent homophobia, wishing she could just fit in for once, even if that nagging feeling of doubt that Andy’s not right keeps squirming away in her conscience.

When Prom night arrives, what Carla expects to be the most magical night of her life turns into the stuff of nightmares when Andy’s torment of Stephan Jones and his partner Frank Montgomery goes too far. There’s no happy ending for anyone in this book, but neither is there true justice, and in that aspect, The Drowning of Stephan Jones mirrors real life a little too well.

First off, this was first published in 1991, so it’s more than a little dated by YA standards. I remember reading a lot of books written in this style when I was growing up, and honestly, I’m impressed that this book even made it to print in ’91. I was 11 then, and when LGBT issues were brought up in any kind of media, it was either about AIDS (the movie of And the Band Played On wouldn’t be made for another two years, but Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive that year) or was more for laughs- remember all the laughs Friends went for when Ross’s wife Carol left him for another woman? When Ellen came out of the closet by accidentally announcing that she was gay over an airport loudspeaker? So kudos to Ms. Greene and other authors who were out there pushing these boundaries and opening the doors and the minds of YA readers at the time; I’m grateful that this book and others like it (I did read Annie On My Mind in high school!) existed. Just know that if you read it now, the dialogue, in particular, shows the book’s age.

The story is told not just from Carla’s perspective, but from Frank’s, and Stephen’s, and even Carla’s mother gets in on the action. All these viewpoints help round out the story; Carla’s librarian mother, who, because of her past, has learned to use her voice and stand up for what she believes in, is a particularly likable character. Carla, however, is maybe a bit on the immature side and frustrating to read- while this could be because I identified better with her mother than with her due to my age, I felt it was more due to Carla’s constant need to fit in, to the detriment of her integrity (needing to fit in was never something I was concerned about when I was younger. I didn’t fit in with the popular crowd, and I didn’t care, because a lot of them were terrible, mean people). She does learn, but it’s at a high cost to many people, and while this story goes beyond being a simple cautionary tale, it doesn’t make Carla’s eye-rolling rejection of her mother’s humanitarian ideals any less irksome.

What bothered me about this book was the ending. Obviously, there are no spoilers when I say that in The Drowning of Stephan Jones, Stephan Jones drowns, and if you’ve read what I’ve already written, you realize his drowning is no accident. There’s a scene at the end where I feared Frank, Stephan’s partner, was about to enact terrible, bloody revenge, but the revenge he does enact is of a different sort, one that plays upon and ultimately serves to further the town’s overwhelming homophobia. It’s not a scene that I think would clear an editor’s desk these days simply for that reason, and while it may have seemed fitting retribution back when this was first published, it left a sour taste in my mouth as I read it twenty-eight years later. If only books were more fluid and more easily updated…

The Drowning of Stephan Jones is an all-too-real novel of what happens when people listen without questioning what they’re ‘carefully taught,’ as the Rodgers and Hammerstein song goes. It’s a story of what happens when we go along with the crowd without raising our voices for the sake of popularity, for the sake of safety. And it’s the disappointing story of justice unserved, of the culmination of people who have been carefully taught being placed in positions with the power to decide who deserves justice and who doesn’t. Not an easy read, to be sure, but still as applicable today as when it was written…which is bitterly disappointing, to say the very least.

Do you often read backlist like this? I find it especially interesting to examine how styles have changed and social attitudes differ. Most of the time, there’s notable differences, and while the LGBT community has made incredible strides since The Drowning of Stephan Jones was first published, there are far too many people who have yet to catch up. The work continues…

Visit Bette Greene’s website here.