I had the good fortune of chatting with Jennifer Weiner in New York a few weeks ago about her latest novel and one of our favorite books of the year so far, Mrs. Everything. The story is inspired, in part, by her mother who surprised everyone in the family when she fell in love with her "swim coach"--who happened to be a woman. With Pride month upon us, I asked Ms. Weiner if she'd be willing to pen a piece about that. Here it is, along with the powerful message she hopes readers will glean from what we think is her best book yet.
When I started to write Mrs. Everything, it was in the wake of the 2016 election. The world felt angry, as if the Internet, and most of the men on it, had grown teeth and claws, and weren’t afraid to use them. Prejudice and ugliness that once might have been hidden came bursting into view, and the rights we’d taken for granted – the right of gay people to marry, the right of women to control their reproductive lives – were all, once again, under attack.
I needed to understand how we’d gotten here, and where we’d been. As a novelist, that meant telling a story. I knew that this story would be a version of my mother’s story, which, in a nutshell, is this: my mom grew up in Detroit, attended the University of Michigan, married a man in the 1960s, had four kids in the 1970s, got divorced in the 1980s, and, in the 1990s, fell in love with a woman. For years, my siblings and I rolled our eyes at that development, and my mom’s embrace of her new identity and new lifestyle. We joked about it, because joking was easier than thinking about what my mother’s life must have really been like, and how it feels when there’s a part of yourself that you always have to hide.
As a straight woman, I was very aware that this wasn’t my story. So I did my homework. I rediscovered the exuberant Molly Bolt, heroine of Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, who makes it out of small-town Florida to New York City and found her tribe. I did a deep dive into Dykes to Watch Out For, and discovered Ann Bannon’s pulp fiction Beebo Brinker stories. I grilled my mother (to the extent that she would let me). Finally, I began to write the story of Bethie, the feminine, pretty good girl, who wants a husband and children and a white picket fence, and her big sister, rebellious, tomboyish Jo, who dreams of making her fortune as a writer in a big city where she’ll live with the woman she loves.
Spoiler alert: neither woman gets what she wants. At least, not at first. Bethie’s life is knocked off course by the kind of trauma too many women still experience, while Jo learns that not every woman is as brave as she is. The rebel ends up married in the suburbs; the good girl ends up single, on a commune; neither of them getting what they dreamed of.
What are you trying to say? readers ask me. Why the switch? Why do both of the sisters have to go through so many hard times?
I tell them this: I wanted to show that, for women, the odds are stacked and that the house always wins. Good girl; bad girl; straight or gay – no woman gets out unscathed. And I wanted to show that gay characters are just characters, and how, under our skin, women are more similar than we are different. Gay or straight, good girl or bad, we want to be accepted and seen; for the world to love us, just as we are.
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