The initial part of this book is narrated by Rachel Shapiro, a 64-year-old divorced woman in Boca Raton, Florida, who is looking for a new relationship via internet matches. But the story turns out not really to be about Rachel at all, but about her daughter Aviva Grossman.
Aviva was 20 when she fell in love with Congressman Aaron Levin while working as an intern in his office in Miami. They had an affair which got exposed, becoming a news obsession in South Florida (“Avivagate”) until the catastrophe on September 11 finally took the affair off the front pages.
But nothing dies on the internet, and Aviva couldn’t escape her past; she couldn’t even get a job; all anyone had to do was google her name. Even worse:
“Because it was an election year, the congressman’s staff took great pains to distance itself from Aviva. They characterized her as the Lolita intern, a Lewinsky wannabe, and a variety of other synonyms for ‘slutty.’”
Unfortunately for Aviva, as one might expect, the Congressman came out of it unscathed, while Aviva might as well have had a scarlet letter on her chest.
She decided the only escape was to take a new name in a new state, and the story continues years later with narration by “Jane Young,” who is the former Aviva:
“My name is Jane Young. I am thirty-three years old, and I am an event planner, though my business mainly consists of weddings. I was raised in South Florida, but I now reside in Allison Springs, Maine, which is about twenty-five minutes from Portland and which is a popular summer spot for destination weddings.”
Because Allison Springs is a relatively small town, Jane finds out everyone’s secrets:
“People were often the worst versions of themselves in the months leading up to a wedding. Occasionally, though, the worst version of someone was the actual version of someone, but it was difficult to know if one was in that situation until after the fact.”
Jane is also the single mom of a precocious daughter, Ruby. Ruby helps out her mom as an assistant (Jane reports Ruby’s first word was “canapé.”). Like Jane and Jane’s mother Rachel, Ruby is perceptive, sarcastic, and has an excellent sense of humor.
When Ruby is 13, she becomes pen pals with an Indonesian girl, Fatima, and the narration frequently switches to Ruby, sometimes in the form of her very amusing letters to Fatima. She explains to Fatima that her mom, now 37, is running for mayor of Allison Springs.
Ruby also confesses to Fatima that she has started to think about her dad. She asks Jane for more information, and Jane tells her he was a one-night stand named Mariano Donatello who died in a car accident. But Ruby can’t find anything about that name on the internet (the web being a recurring character itself in this story). Then she figures out her mom is Aviva Grossman. She is appalled that her mom is “a BIG liar and a disgrace.” She is angry and hurt at being lied to her whole life.” She accuses her mother of “daughter fraud” – lying to her daughter, not to mention of “voter fraud” – lying to the voters. She decides Congressman Levin must be her real father, and chaos ensues.
Near the end of the book the narration switches to Embeth, the long-suffering wife of the congressman. Embeth is a surprisingly sympathetic character, and is also quite funny. She observes, “There had been times when Aaron had let her down as a husband, but she could honestly say he had never let her down as a congressman.” But in “the irony to end all ironies,” Embeth loved Aaron. She felt that it wasn’t being cheated on that was so bad, it was having it be public. “She still, fifteen years later, wondered if they judged her for staying with him after Avivagate.”
All of the characters come to a reckoning as the threads of their stories coalesce. It may sound as if it is a tragic story, and in terms of the disparate treatment of gender by society and double standards that still prevail, it certainly is. But the mood is so light and so full of wit, it is hard to feel anything but happy while reading this entertaining story. The ending is well done, and quite satisfactory.
Discussion: I love some of the insights revealed by the characters. For example, Jane muses:
“I was overweight when I was her age, and my mother discussed it exhaustively. And yes, as a result, I would say I am the proud owner of several complexes. But who isn’t? When you think about it, isn’t a person just a structure built in reaction to the landscape and the weather?”
Jane also understood that, being older, her memories of what happened with the congressman were not as bad as they might have, or should have, been:
“Maybe, despite everything, I think kindly of Levin because I knew him when I was easily impressed, because I knew him when I was young.”
Evaluation: I haven’t read all of the books by this author (I’m not sure why not), but I have loved every one I have read. They have all been heavily dosed with waggish humor both subtle and overt, with unexpected plot twists, and clever dialogue. In addition, they have been about the never-boring exploration of love in its different forms and permutations over the years. This book would also be an excellent choice for book clubs.
Published by Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing, 2017