I read this novel just after reading Elin Hilderbrand's Summer of '69 and found myself occasionally mixing the two up, ascribing one of Hilderbrand's characters to Weiner. No doubt both authors would have been appalled, but there are actually some common themes. Both books could be said to be "women's stories"; the main characters are all female and the essential thrust of the stories is about young women coming of age, about coming to accept oneself, and about women's empowerment. And both books were very, very good.
Mrs. Everything tells the story of two sisters, Josette (Jo) and Elisabeth (Bethie) Kaufman. We first meet them as they are children growing up in the 1950s in Detroit and we follow them as they end up at university in Ann Arbor during its hippie period. From there Jo moves on to the oppressive atmosphere of suburban Connecticut and Bethie makes her way to a feminist collective in Atlanta, but it is what happens to these young women to impel them on to these destinations that makes up the heart of the plot.
Growing up, Jo is the wild child and the rebel who is not understood by her mother but has a loving relationship with her father. Bethie is the mother's ideal of a daughter - pretty, popular, and acquiescent. Jo, in fact, is struggling with her sexual identity and, in her teens, accepts the fact that she is homosexual. Bethie, on the other hand, has a series of boyfriends.
Then, the girls' world is turned upside down. Their father dies unexpectedly. Their mother who has never worked outside the home and never had to manage anything more complicated than the housework must go to work to support the family. Jo also finds a job as a camp counselor that takes her away from home for the summer. While she is away, in the guise of aiding the family, their father's brother begins sexually abusing Bethie. As with many young sexual abuse victims, Bethie finds it impossible to explain to her overwhelmed mother what is happening. But then Jo comes home from camp and Bethie, through sobs, manages to tell her. They make a plan for dealing with the uncle and it works!
But this is a pattern that will be repeated in their lives - Jo coming to the rescue of her younger sister.
Jo falls in love with her best friend, but they are unable to live together as a couple because of prejudice against homosexuals. Each young woman marries a man and attempts to live a "normal" life.
Through these two sisters, Weiner is able to tell the history of the women's rights movement in the '60s, '70s, and later. She also is able to fully explore the sexual awakening of a woman who came of age during a time that identifying as a lesbian would ensure that she was only able to participate in society on the fringes. Weiner's descriptions of sex between two women are particularly vivid and affecting. The sacrifices of their essential natures that these women made in order to be accepted by society are almost incomprehensible.
The story continues right to the present and even a bit beyond, and it contains tropes that will be familiar to many women who have lived through this era. Not that all women have been sexually abused as a child or gang-raped as a young woman as Bethie was, but the societal attitudes regarding these and other occurrences will be instantly recognizable to others like me for whom the '60s, '70s, etc. may well be history but they are also part of our personal story.
I suppose Mrs. Everything is not a perfect book and a professional critic would probably find weaknesses to point out, but I was swept up in the two sisters' tale from the beginning. I laughed and cried and suffered angst right along with them, and I was sorry when I turned the last page.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars