How should a woman be in the world?
Bestselling author Jennifer Weiner explores that question via a multigenerational story focused on the lives of two sisters, Jo and Bethie Kaufman, from the 1950s nearly to the present.
Jo and Bethie were born into the post-World War II world of prosperity and boundless promise. Growing up in 1950s Detroit, they live in a quintessentially American home where their roles in the family are clearly defined. Jo is the tomboy, the bookish rebel with a passion to make the world more fair. Bethie is the pretty, feminine good girl, a would-be star who enjoys the power her beauty confers and dreams of a traditional life. But they struggle to find their places — and be true to themselves — in a rapidly evolving world.
Do we change the world or does the world change us?
Truth ends up looking different than the girls imagined.
Jo and Bethie survive traumas and tragedies. As their lives unfold in the age of free love, Vietnam, Woodstock, and women’s liberation, Bethie transforms into an adventure-loving wild child who dives headlong into the counterculture and is up for anything — except settling down.
Meanwhile, Jo marries and becomes a traditional young mother in Connecticut, a witness to the changing world rather than a participant in that change.
Neither woman inhabits the world she dreams of. Neither has built a life that feels authentic or brings her joy. Do they still have a chance to stake a claim to a happily ever after of their own design?
Bestselling author Jennifer Weiner says she has been thinking about the story of Mrs. Everything “for a really long time.” She always knew that she wanted to pen a historical novel with “a lot of sweep and a lot of heft that would cover not just women in the present, but would cover generations. That started to feel a lot more urgent after the 2016 election and rise of the MeToo movement.” Her goal was to use her characters to explore “the story of women in America — where we’ve been, where we’ve gotten and, as the mother of daughters, where we still need to go.” With Mrs. Everything, Weiner has achieved her goal in entertaining and absorbing fashion.
Mrs. Everything is a saga that plays out across more than six decades and examines the journeys of Jo and Bethie, two sisters who are, of course, total opposites. Bethie is pretty, feminine, and loves to be in the spotlight. She learns at an early age how to get what she wants from boys using her female charms. In contrast, Jo is athletic, political, and although she, like Bethie, has boyfriends, they don’t interest her much. At an early age she discovers why, painfully aware that she will always have to keep her desires secret, hidden away from a society that won’t accept her as she is.
Jo is a constant source of exasperation to their long-suffering Jewish mother, Sarah. When their father dies suddenly, Sarah is forced to take a job in the local department store to support the family. Jo feels their father’s absence acutely and it strains her relationship with Sarah further since he ran interference between the two of them. But both girls step up to assist with Jo taking a job as a camp counselor while Bethie signs on to perform household tasks in their uncle’s home after school.
I wanted to write about a woman who missed everything — who missed her chance to participate in the great youth movement, the war protests, the counterculture, Woodstock, and also her chance at true love. And so — Mrs. Everything. When you say it out loud, it’s ‘misses everything.’ ~~ Author Jennifer Weiner
A horrific event forever alters the course of both of their lives. Jo comes to Bethie’s aid, scuttling her plan to travel abroad with her girlfriend when she uses the money she had saved to help Bethie. Shattered, and so unsure of who she has become or what the future holds for her, Bethie wanders the country and eventually ends up living on a commune, while Jo decides that convention is the safest route. Through the years, the girls’ lives are beset by molestation by a relative, gang rape, abortion, an eating disorder, drug use, sexual harassment in the workplace, a shocking betrayal by a friend and spouse, and cancer, all against the backdrop of sociological changes, including the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, and the fight for reproductive and civil rights.
Weiner’s portrayal of the sibling relationship is believable and sometimes makes for painful reading. Typical of sisters, they go through periods when they barely communicate with or see each other, but remain bound together in the mysterious, inexplicable way that only sisters can be. They harbor grudges, resentments, and anger. At one point Bethie exclaims to Jo, “You think that I ruined your life? Well, I think you ruined mine.” They confound each other. But they also come together when one needs the other, their loyalty forceful and, ultimately, unbreakable. Both characters are fully drawn and empathetic — deeply flawed and aggravating, but also endearing. Just like members of one’s own family.
Mrs. Everything is an ambitious, compelling, and unsparing look at sexism, stereotypes, conventional roles, and women’s ongoing drive for the freedom to unashamedly be true to their own spirits. In 2016, now in her 70s, Jo ponders all the strides made by women during her lifetime, wondering, “Would the day ever come when simply doing your best would be enough?” Through Jo and Bethie’s experiences, Weiner challenges readers to consider how a woman should be in the world while remaining true to herself. To emphasize the conundrum, Weiner concludes the book in 2016, a watershed year for women by any measure. But a year in which it became obvious just how much farther women have to go.
Weiner says she hopes her readers will find everything they have come to expect from her writing in Mrs. Everything: “That it will be funny and engaging and observant; that it will have characters who feel like women you know.” In many ways, Mrs. Everything feels like quintessential Weiner, but it is much more. With Mrs. Everything, Weiner has clearly stepped out of her comfort zone and into edgier, more controversial topics and a deeply moving examination of her characters and their motivations. Mrs. Everything constitutes a strong declaration about the current state of womanhood in the United States. It is sure to be deemed one of the best books of 2019.
Excerpt from Mrs. Everything
The four Kaufmans stood at the curb in front of the new house on Alhambra Street, as if they were afraid to set foot on the lawn, even though Jo knew they could. The lawn belonged to them now, along with the house, with its red bricks and the white aluminum awning. Every part of it, the front door and the steps, the mailbox at the curb, the cherry tree in the backyard and the maple tree by the driveway, the carport and the basement and the attic you could reach by a flight of stairs that you pulled down from the ceiling, all of it belonged to the Kaufmans. They were moving out of the bad part of Detroit, which Jo’s parents said was crowded and unhealthy, full of bad germs and diseases and filling up with people who weren’t like them; they were moving up in the world, to this new neighborhood, to a house that would be all their own.
“Oh, Ken,” said Jo’s mother, as she squeezed his arm with her gloved hand. Her mother’s name was Sarah, and she was just over five feet tall, with white skin that always looked a little suntanned, shiny brown hair that fell in curls to her shoulders, and a pursed, painted red mouth beneath a generous nose. Her round chin jutted forward, giving her a determined look, and there were grooves running from the corners of her nose to the edges of her lips, but that morning, her mouth was turned up at the corners, not scrunched up in a frown. She was happy, and as close to beautiful as Jo had ever seen.
Jo wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist, feeling the stiffness underneath the starch of Sarah’s best red dress, the one with a full skirt flaring out from her narrow waist and three big white buttons on either side of the bodice. A smart red hat with a black ribbon band sat on top of Sarah’s curls. Her mother put her arm around Jo’s shoulders and squeezed, and Jo felt like someone had pulled a blanket up to her chin, or like she was swimming in Lake Erie, where they went in the summertime, and had just paddled into a patch of warm water.
“So, girls? What do you think?” asked Jo’s daddy.
“It’s like a castle!” said Bethie, her little sister. Bethie was five years old, chubby and cute, with pale white skin, naturally curly hair, and blue-green eyes, and she always said exactly the right thing. Jo was six, almost seven, tall and gangly, and almost everything she did was wrong.
Jo smiled, dizzy with pleasure as her dad scooped her up in his arms. Ken Kaufman had thick dark hair that he wore combed straight back from his forehead. His nose, Jo thought, gave him a hawk-like aspect. His eyes were blue underneath dark brows, and he smelled like the bay rum cologne he patted on his cheeks every morning after he shaved. He was only a few inches taller than his wife, but he was broad-shouldered and solid. Standing in front of the house he’d bought, he looked as tall as Superman from the comic books. He wore his good gray suit, a white shirt, a red tie to match Sarah’s dress, and black shoes that Jo had helped him shine that morning, setting the shoes onto yesterday’s Free Press, working the polish into the leather with a tortoiseshell-handled brush. Jo and Bethie wore matching pink gingham dresses that their mother had sewn, with puffy sleeves, and patent-leather Mary Janes. Bethie could hardly wait to try on the new dress. When Jo had asked to wear her dungarees, her mother had frowned. “Why would you want to wear pants? Today’s a special day. Don’t you want to look pretty?”
Jo couldn’t explain. She didn’t have the words to say how she felt about pretty, how the lacy socks itched and the fancy shoes pinched and the elastic insides of the sleeves left red dents in her upper arms. When she was dressed up, Jo just felt wrong, like it was hard to breathe, like her skin no longer fit, like she’d been forced into a costume or a disguise, and her mother was always shushing her, even when she wasn’t especially loud. She didn’t care about looking pretty, and she didn’t like dresses. Her mother, she knew, would never understand.
“It’s our house,” Jo’s mother was saying, her voice rich with satisfaction.
“The American Dream,” said Jo’s dad. To Jo, the house didn’t seem like much of a dream. It wasn’t a castle with a moat, no matter what Bethie had said, or even a mansion, like the ones in Grosse Pointe that Jo had seen when the family had driven there for a picnic. It was just a regular house, square-shaped and boring red, with a triangle-shaped roof plopped on top, like the one in her “Dick and Jane” readers, on a street of houses that looked just the same. In their old neighborhood, they’d lived in an apartment. You could walk up the stairs and smell what everyone was cooking for dinner. The sidewalks had bustled with people, kids, and old men and women, people with light skin and dark skin. They’d sit on their stoops on warm summer nights, speaking English or Yiddish, or Polish or Italian. Here, the streets were quiet. The air just smelled like air, not food, the sidewalks were empty, and the people she’d seen so far all had white skin like they did. But maybe, in this new place, she could make a fresh start. Maybe here, she could be a good girl.
Except now she had a problem. Her dad had borrowed a camera, a boxy, rectangular Kodak Duaflex with a stand and a timer. The plan was for them all to pose on the steps in front of the house for a picture, but Sarah had made her wear tights under their new dresses, and the tights had caused Jo’s underpants to crawl up the crack of her tushie, where they’d gotten stuck. Jo knew if she pulled them out her mother would see, and she’d get angry. “Stop fidgeting!” she would hiss, or “A lady doesn’t touch her private parts in public,” except everything itched her so awfully that Jo didn’t think she could stand it.
Things like this never happened to Bethie. If Jo hadn’t seen it herself, she wouldn’t have believed that her sister even had a tushie crack. The way Bethie behaved, you’d expect her to be completely smooth down there, like one of the baby dolls Bethie loved. Jo had dolls, too, but she got bored with them once she’d chopped off their hair or twisted off their heads. Jo shifted her weight from side to side, hoping it would dislodge her underwear. It didn’t.
Her father pulled the keys out of his pocket, flipped them in the air, and caught them neatly in his hand. “Let’s go, ladies!” His voice was loud and cheerful. Bethie and Sarah climbed the stairs and stood in front of the door. Sarah peered across the lawn, shadowing her eyes with her hand, frowning.
“Come on, Jo!”
Jo took one step, feeling her underwear ride up higher. Another step. Then another. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she reached behind her, grabbed a handful of pink gingham, hooked her thumb underneath the underpants’ elastic, and yanked. All she’d meant to do was pull her panties back into place, but she tugged so vigorously that she tore the skirt away from its bodice. The sound of the ripping cloth was the loudest sound in the world.
“Josette Kaufman!” Sarah’s face was turning red. Her father look startled, and Bethie’s face was horrified.
“I’m sorry!” Jo felt her chest start getting tight.
“What’s the matter with you?” Sarah snapped. “Why can’t you be good for once?”
“Sarah.” Ken’s voice was quiet, but angry.
“Oh, sure!” said Sarah, and tossed her head. “You always take up for her!” She stopped talking, which was good, except then she started crying, which was bad. Jo stood on the lawn, dress torn, tights askew, watching tears cut tracks through her mother’s makeup, hearing her father’s low, angry voice, wondering if there was something wrong with her, why things like this were always happening, why she couldn’t be good, and why her mom couldn’t have just let her wear pants, the way she’d wanted.