Jennifer Weiner is an accomplished fiction author. I have read several of her books, and they all include women who overcome trials and or adversity in many forms. These women are real. They have emotions, complexities, and do not always end up in a “happily ever after” but more in a place of contentment.
I felt like I knew what story I would be reading: the settings and plots may change, but the elements are generally the same. And Mrs. Everything had those same elements – strong female characters, trials, adversity, growth – but it took place over the lifetimes of two sisters.
We meet Jo and Bethie Kaufman, sisters of Jewish parents who are growing up in the 1950s in Detroit. Their parents are the epitome of the American dream: Dad has a successful job, they live in a nice neighborhood and house that was carefully saved for, and their lives are safe and happy.
The sisters are very different from each other.
Jo is more of a tomboy, a far cry from her feminine sister Bethie. Her mother seems to always fuss at her for making messes, breaking things, and generally acting “unladylike.” Bethie is the quiet, girly daughter who wants to be a star someday. Their father takes Jo under his wing, and their mother works to shield them from the outside world.
But the outside world still creeps in.
Their father dies suddenly, which shifts all their lives. Gretchen notes, “I think Jo lost her confidante/best friend/biggest supporter and it left her alone, in many ways. I think Bethie lost her male role model and protector and she frequently sought replacements.”
Their mother is forced to work and penny-pinch with his life insurance. The girls grow older and into different directions. Jo becomes a civil rights advocate and studious teen and young adult. She has discovered her attraction to women but keeps it secret; in the backdrop of the 1960s, this was not an accepted sexual preference. Bethie is assaulted by a wealthy uncle but keeps this secret to avoid trouble for her family; this changes her in many ways but causes her to hate herself.
The entire novel follows the sisters into adulthood, where choices and decisions have great consequences on both of their lives.
After heartbreak with her college girlfriend, Jo rejects that part of her life. She becomes the all-American suburban wife and mother. She loves her three daughters, but she is ultimately unhappy in her life. Bethie encounters additional traumas that turn her from a demure child into a literal wild child, dropping out of college and living a hippie existence. She travels the world, seeking solace and her place in the world, and finally finds it in the most unlikely of people and places.
So who was Mrs. Everything? Is it possible to be that person? Both Jo and Bethie find that this illusion of a woman who has it all is unattainable, something we can all relate to.
Our readers found it frustrating to read about their choices.
Amelia commented, “As much as I’d hate to judge, they were quite a mess for being privileged. They had some stuff hard growing up, yes, but it wasn’t extreme. On the other hand, it’s understandable. Nowadays, we acknowledge, it’s ok not to be ok…it wasn’t before. They never dealt with hardships in a healthy way. Even their dad’s death was never truly grieved in a real way when it happened.”
It can be challenging to idly read by as characters make mistakes or choose difficult roads. I wanted to scream at Bethie many times as she made choices with men; I wanted to reach in and hug Jo so many times as she struggled with a hidden sexual orientation.
But that is the advantage of being the reader. We can see everything from a third person perspective without having lived through it. This book takes place from 1951-2016, with many of those years and decades undergoing radical social changes. Through the book and the characters, we witness how challenging life was and just how far our society and world has come (or alternately, how much has stayed the same).
Weiner wrote this book based loosely on her own mother.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, she speaks candidly about her mother’s decision to enter a relationship with a woman in the late 1990s. This was still a tumultuous time for those in the LGBTQ community. Marriage equality did not exist, and violence was still a very real threat. But she admires her mother for her life. She stated:
” ‘And I always knew that I wanted to write about a woman like my mother,’ she continues, ‘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 40 years ago.’ ”
As always, I never like to give too much of the book away. Our book club had mixed feelings about the book overall, but we enjoyed reading about the characters and watching their lives develop over time. Jennifer Weiner once again delivers a fiction novel with strong female characters who are not perfect but stumbling through life in the best ways they know.
If we learned anything from Mrs. Everything, it is this: the best version of her is one who is still learning and growing into who she wants to be.
Thanks for reading with the MMC Book Club! Read with us this month – our book is A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum!