A D.C. sex scandal, through female eyes

"Young Jane Young" by Gabrielle Zevin
In her novel "Young Jane Young," Gabrielle Zevin explores the way stories change with the perspective of the listener.
Courtesy of the publisher

The gender imbalances of a Washington sex scandal run through best-selling novelist Gabrielle Zevin's new book, "Young Jane Young." Rather than telling just an explosive but short-lived story, Zevin takes the long view — from several female perspectives.

"Young Jane Young" opens several years after a scandal involving a Florida congressman and a young intern from his office. Rachel, a divorced woman in her mid-60s, is dipping her toe back in the dating pool. Things initially go well at dinner with a guy called Louis, until he asks if she has children. She says she has a daughter named Aviva.

"And he says Aviva, that means springtime or innocence in Hebrew, what a beautiful name. And I say, I know, that's why my ex-husband and I chose it. And he says, I haven't known many Avivas, it's not a very common name, just that girl who got into trouble with Congressman Levin."


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Louis misses Rachel's body-language indicating that she is really not interested in talking about the subject. He can't remember the intern's surname, but he launches into how it was all the young woman's fault, and how badly she damaged the politician's career, even though he still has his seat.

Louis won't let up.

"He says, you know who I feel sorry for? Her parents.

He says 'I wonder whatever happened to that girl. I mean who would ever hire her? Who would marry her?'

Gabrielle Zevin
Gabrielle Zevin
Hans Canosa

He says 'Grossman! Aviva Grossman! That's it!'

And I say 'That's it.'"

Rachel leaves without revealing her ex-husband's surname: Grossman.

She is the first of five female characters who give their version of Aviva's story. Author Zevin, who is in her late 30s, said she's become more and more aware that stories change as people grow older.

"So even books that you read can become different books based on the age when you read them," she said. "And so I was interested in having a novel that was told by women of different ages to give their perspective on the same story."

In addition to Rachel, readers get the story from Aviva, and from Jane Young, the name Aviva adopts after moving to a different city to escape the scandal. There's Ruby, Jane's moralistic 13-year-old, and Embeth, Rep. Levin's wife. Most of them, even Aviva and Jane to an extent, disapprove of what Aviva did.

"And it takes a while for the characters in my book to even understand the extent to which they have been fed a narrative about Aviva that isn't entirely true," said Zevin.

In "Young Jane Young," Aviva compares herself to a girl on a raft in a storm, where no one is much interested in the storm. Zevin said the storm is the powerful male politician.

"And I think that's true often, that when we have these stories, the woman in the story takes the brunt of it, and the man in the story gets to continue his life," she said. "He says he's sorry and that's that, but the woman carries it forever."

It's telling that such scandals are usually remembered through the name of the woman rather than of the man involved.

Zevin said she likes to deal with difficult topics through humor. "Young Jane Young" is very funny, but the breezy writing has steely conviction at its core. Zevin said that while the novel decries the double standards of political sex scandals, it's actually about another, larger issue — the low numbers of women in leadership positions, particularly in politics.

"Women are so much more susceptible to being shamed in ways that men are not shamed, and I think this leads right back to the disparity-in-representation issue that we have," she said.

Gabrielle Zevin will read from "Young Jane Young" at Excelsior Bay Books on Wednesday evening and at Valley Bookseller in Stillwater on Thursday. They are the first dates on an extensive national tour. She finished the book in August last year, and sent it off to her publisher making certain assumptions.

"Hillary Clinton hadn't lost yet," she said. "And so I really I thought that this book would be coming out into a very different world than the one it now comes out into. I thought we would be having discussions," she said with a laugh, "but different discussions."

So she's eager to talk with readers about what they think now.