“Mrs. Everything” might be Jennifer Weiner’s most ambitious novel yet. She takes readers into the lives of two sisters, Jo and Bethie, who grow up during the 50s. Readers watch Jo and Bethie as the Kaufman family buys their first house in a suburb of Detroit. Readers with at least one sister will nod as the story shows girls who are very different in terms of personality and temperament, but who love each other — much of the time.
Bethie, the younger sister, seems to do no wrong. She wears the frilly dresses her mother picks out and never gets dirty. Jo, on the other hand, only wants to wear pants and comfortable shirts. She wants to play outside and roughhouse with the maid’s daughter. She most certainly doesn’t want to play with dolls like Bethie. Yet each night in their shared bedroom, Jo tells Bethie stories — not too scary — in which Bethie’s life always turns out perfect.
But life is never perfect, and fiction mirrors reality in showing the sadness that families often experience. Their father dies when the girls are young, and their mother, never an overly affectionate person, goes to work and becomes even more distant from her daughters, especially Jo. Jo is troubled that her mother never shows her any affection. Her mother can’t understand why Jo is different, and she disapproves of Jo’s life choices.
In high school, Jo realizes that she is not attracted to boys, and she finds a girlfriend. But for the girl she adores, Jo is merely a dalliance on her way to the altar with a local boy. Jo goes to college, and again, she meets someone she falls in love with. But Shelley Finkelbein seems out of her league, and Shelley insists they keep their relationship secret. When Shelley breaks her heart, Jo marries and becomes a mother.
The story follows Bethie to college as well. She does not fare as well as Jo does, hanging out with drug dealers and not concentrating on her studies at all. She returns home a broken person, relying on her mother and sister to help her. As the years pass — labeled by Weiner so the passage of time is clear — the sisters grow and change. The sisters’ relationships with each other and with others is key to understanding the motivations behind the choices they make. And at times, the sisters’ role become reversed, with Jo becoming the dutiful wife and Bethie the outcast.
“Mrs. Everything” is not just a story of two sisters and eventually, their extended families, but rather a novel about the coming of age of women in America. It’s about the 60s, civil rights and the drug days, it’s about the 70s and the war, and it’s about struggles with weight, the Jewish culture, feminism and sexual freedom. By the end of the story, almost 70 years later, there is a #MeToo moment as well as Hillary Clinton accepting the Democratic nomination to be the first female presidential candidate. The expectations of women that the girls knew as children have changed greatly. Weiner writes about how the more women’s place in society and the family changes because of social pressure and social mores, the more women aren’t necessarily freer and happier because of it. In fact, with the “you can be a mother and have a successful job” attitude of today, many extremely successful women are questioned about their choices.
“How do you feel about missing so much of your child’s life?” might be asked of a female executive who works long hours and travels, but that question is never asked of a male executive. And what about the woman who just wants to be a mother? Is that woman made to feel that her choice makes her less of a woman, to be less valued?
But in addition to the relationships between the women in the story, the crux of the story is that no matter what a parent does, no matter how good or not good a mother strives to be, children are resilient. Children often feel unloved, and both Jo and Bethie have felt unloved by their mother at times in their lives. But will the next generation feel the same way? Is there anything parents can do to make sure that their children always feel safe and secure and loved? What about divorce, death, sexual identity, and other events and conditions that profoundly affect lives?
The bottom line is that while there is much that can derail relationships, the only thing that parents can do is try their hardest to be the best they can be and to love their children, as well as their partners, with all their hearts. This story will cause readers to think about their own lives and relationships.
Originally posted on Bookreporter.com.