Monica Lewinsky was neither the first, nor the last, political intern to gain notoriety for a sex scandal. She was, however, an early example of how a news story can morph into a punchline and become part of our national history, via the internet.

Though her infamy dates back two decades, people still opine about “that woman,” as if we actually know her. It’s a narrative as fixed as Mount Rushmore in the public imagination. In the face of this, acclaimed author Gabrielle Zevin has reimagined the Lewinsky tale in an irresistible new novel, “Young Jane Young.”

It’s 1999, when 20-year-old Aviva Grossman starts her internship in the office of Aaron Levin, a married congressman from South Florida. Hired as a gofer, Aviva proves herself savvy in the brave new world of internet searching. She becomes known as the “fact-check girl.” As a result, she wins the attention of her boss, a charmer who enjoys hanging out with the young staff. One thing leads to another, and their affair begins.

After Levin is in a car accident, however, an investigation ensues – and with it, the outing of their affair and the blog Aviva wrote anonymously about her internship. Thus “Avivagate” is born, followed by years of public humiliation and slut-shaming. Aviva, whose blunder metastasizes online, instantly becomes a pariah. The congressman, meanwhile, goes on to win yet more terms in office.

Gabrielle Zevin

In one sense, this is a story about the modernizing of shame – its speed, cruelty and permanence in the digital age. “In high school, you read ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ and it occurs to you that this is what the internet is like,” Aviva says. “The discovery of your shame is one click away.” Then later: “You need to find employment, but you are internet infamous. There is nowhere you can move that is far enough away. … The problem is your name.”

The power of Zevin’s book lies in its main characters, a quirky estrogen-laced tribe; the book’s multi-layered structure; and the big-heartedness at its core. Zevin has divided the book into five sections, each representing a key player, and the story gains depth as it moves back and forth in time.


We meet Rachel Grossman, the helicopter mom whose daughter brings shame upon the family; Jane Young, formerly Aviva, who has changed her name and decamped to Allison Springs, Maine, near Portland, where she starts a new life as a wedding planner; Ruby, Jane’s plucky young daughter; and Embeth Levin, wife of the philandering congressman. Finally we meet Aviva herself, whose version of events unfolds in the second-person style of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series.

Zevin’s defense of Jane is a plea for sanity and compassion. The author contrives a series of ironic, often funny, encounters that show how Aviva’s past continues to stalk Jane, and even her mother, in the present. At one extreme is the man who, upon hearing the forename Aviva, launches into a tirade about the scandal that was a blight on South Florida, the Jews, politicians, even civilization. This, on a first date with long-divorced Rachel, who now goes by her maiden name.

“What if Aviva weren’t my daughter?” she says, refusing a second date. “Should you really talk about anyone’s daughter that way?”

Other views range from forgiving and nonchalant – Aviva committed adultery, not murder, and besides, who cares? – to livid and betrayed, which is how Ruby reacts when she discovers her mother’s history.

Finally, it’s Rachel who makes peace with it all, years later, when she says to Jane, “What did you do? It was sex. He was ancient. You were a girl. It was a bunch of narishkeit. Everyone in Florida behaved like little babies.”

Readers of Zevin’s 2014 bestseller, “The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry,” will recall the ease and charm of her storytelling, which also permeates the current book. Part morality tale, part coming-of-age story, “Young Jane Young” portrays a three-dimensional woman whose character far exceeds the single slice of her youthful affair.

We see Jane as the naive mistress; rebellious, lost daughter; and adoring mother, with her own ambitions, to boot. Not only does she build a new life for herself and Ruby, but she’s running for mayor of Allison Springs, backed by the town’s matriarch and newspaper publisher.

“Young Jane Young” is a testament to second chances and reclaiming one’s own narrative. It’s a feminist anthem – triumphant, earthy and hopeful. And it’s a terrific read. One can’t help wondering whether and how it may reshape the public perception of Monica Lewinsky.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

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