Jennifer Weiner’s big, cozy 13th novel, “Mrs. Everything,” follows a pair of sisters named Jo and Bethie (sorry, no Meg or Amy) from their childhood in the 1950s to just a few years ago, with an epilogue set in 2022. All of Weiner’s familiar themes — relationships between women, the disappointments of romance, weight loss, feminism, Jewish culture and family life — weave through the book, and as in her 2001 debut, “Good in Bed,” there’s a character inspired by her real-life mother, who came out as lesbian at 55. It is her most ambitious and serious book to date, exchanging the witty tone and one-liners of earlier work for a more earnest approach to social issues.
We meet the four Kaufmans in 1951, standing on the curb in their new development, moving “out of the bad part of Detroit which Jo’s parents said was crowded and unhealthy, full of bad germs and filling up with people who weren’t like them.” Dressed in their finest, they are gazing at a house Ken Kaufman labels “The American Dream,” though his six-year-old daughter Jo is unimpressed. This thing is no castle — it looks just like the boxy red houses like in her Dick and Jane readers. Meanwhile, she is struggling with her itchy dress and wishing her mother had let her wear pants.
Two-years-younger Bethie is the little cutie of the family, doted on by all. Jo adores her father, who takes her to Tigers games and showers her with kindness, but has a difficult relationship with her mother, whom she can never please, mostly because she won’t give up her sporty, headstrong ways and enjoy being a girl. By the time she is 14, Jo has been on plenty of dates, usually doubling with her best friend Lynette, but the “clammy hands” and “wormy lips” the boys present have left her cold. Then one magical day, Lynette invites Jo home after school to show her a little something she was loaned by a counselor at summer camp. “I am going to change your life,” she promises.
Bethie’s life is about to be changed by sex as well, but in a much darker fashion, courtesy of her father’s wealthy optometrist brother, Uncle Mel. The doleful effects of his abuse resonate through the next several decades of Bethie’s life, which unfold alongside her sister’s, both set against a backdrop of American politics and pop culture.
After high school, Jo heads off to the University of Michigan; when Bethie visits her there in 1962, she sees “girls in long, loose dresses ... with unstyled hair tumbling past their shoulders” and “Negro students, male and female” with “hair that stood out like crowns around their heads.” A barefoot boy with hair so long it’s tangled in his chest-length beard flashes her a peace sign. Meanwhile, sister Jo is lapping up humanities courses — though she’s also obediently earning her teaching certificate — and hoping desperately to run into a slender, dark-haired, thick-lashed rich girl named Shelley Finkelbein who showed up just once in her philosophy class.
Fashions, songs, news events, fads and styles appear as markers as the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s whiz by. Both a Jell-O mold and the exercise videos of Jane Fonda play a role in the plot. Though the original four Kaufmans are very strong, believable characters, a few of the characters introduced in the second half of the book are underdeveloped and some of the plot lines a little unconvincing. None of these is a serious mistake; there’s just one of those, which is tacking a prologue on the front of the book that gives away the resolution of the novel’s central dilemma — what Jo will ultimately do about her socially unacceptable sexuality.
Despite these complaints, “Mrs. Everything” is sure to delight Weiner’s legions of fans and win new ones. Though this Jo and Beth have much more complicated lives than their namesakes in the March family of “Little Women,” “Mrs. Everything” would be perfect for crossover marketing to teenage readers. I can imagine falling in love with it if I were about 16, which is about the age I was when I read Herman Wouk’s “Marjorie Morningstar,” another novel that follows a rebellious Jewish daughter into adulthood. There’s no riper audience for dramas about outsiders and social injustice and people who can’t get along with their mothers.