Jennifer Weiner’s latest novel Mrs. Everything follows two sisters who come of age during the women’s liberation movement and pursue very different lives after their father’s sudden death devastates their idyllic world. Read our conversation below to learn more about the book, the tough choices her own daughters must face, and what it would really take for the next generation of men to help even the playing field…
Katie Couric: I read that after the 2016 election, you were pretty certain that you would write a dark, dystopian novel about issues, but that’s not what happened. Why not?
Jennifer Weiner: It wasn’t for lack of trying! I worked steadily on my failed dystopian novel for a year and a half. Part of it was that it was a story about problems, not people – the issues came before the characters, and the book suffered. Part of it was that I’m just not Margaret Atwood, as much as I wish otherwise. And part of it was that current events kept surpassing my imagination. Honestly, when you write a scene about a prominent politician calling women ‘vessels,’ and the next week there’s a prominent politician calling them ‘carriers,’ you know it’s time to give up!
I can see your point, but it all worked out in the end! This book centers around two sisters, Jo and Bethie Kaufman, and how they evolve over many decades. Do you think their lives reflect the “story of women” in recent history in some ways?
Bethie and Jo represent two opposite responses to what society expects of women. Jo struggles against the rules and wants to live a different life than what the world (and her mother) want for her. Bethie, the good girl, follows all the rules and expects to reap the rewards in the form of wealth and fame – or at least a husband and a white picket fence. I wanted to show that being a woman in America means that you’re playing a rigged game, that there’s no way to win completely. So Jo sees her dreams eroded, has her heart broken, and gets so tired that she ends up slipping into the life that Bethie wanted, while Bethie gets so badly hurt that she ends up so angry that she steps into Jo’s shoes in the counterculture. I wanted to make readers think about all the choices women have, and how many of them lead to dead ends (or, at least, to endings that are less than 100 percent happy).
You’ve said that the book was inspired a great deal by your mother’s life, “and her choices, and what’s changed and what hasn’t.” Do you think you understand your mom differently after writing this story?
I do. I think, for years, I’ve been (very gently and very affectionately) mocking my mom, because I haven’t wanted to think too deeply about what her life must have been like when she was in her twenties and thirties, and how few doors were open to her, in terms of her personal life and in terms of her professional life. Now that I’ve spent time imagining what her world was like, I have a lot more sympathy for her choices, and I have immense respect for anyone who didn’t fit the straight, white mold.
You have daughters of your own. How do you think the world they’re growing up in today presents different challenges for them to navigate than it did for you?
If anything, my daughters might end up suffering from a surfeit of choices. When my mom was in college, women could get an education, but the expectation was that they’d marry a man, and that whatever career they chose would take a back seat to being a mother and a wife. There was a very clear path that women knew to follow. Now, there are multiple paths: you can be a wife (to a man or a woman) and a mother with a job, or you can postpone kids until your career is established. You can skip the career part (and wonder about what you’re missing), or you can skip the kids part (ditto). And if you try to “have it all,” you can prepare for a lifetime of worrying about which side of the equation you’re short-changing: are you giving your job the time and care your kids need? Are you cutting corners and skipping out early from work to be with your children? Who’s suffering, and how guilty are you prepared to feel because of it? (Meanwhile, men still pull off the whole ‘work-life balance’ thing without a second thought, because we expect that there’s a woman in the background somewhere, helping with the kids while they write their books or run their companies).
We as women have made enormous strides in terms of what’s possible. I hope the next generation of men makes similar strides in expanding what happiness and success look like. Either men need to start feeling more guilty for not doing as much emotional labor and not making as many concerts and soccer games, or women need to start feeling less guilty for the same things!
I love that you’ve been outspoken about the tendency for popular culture to trivialize and dismiss books about women’s lives written by women. Are you hopeful that that tendency is beginning to diminish?
I do see some positive signs. The Vida count for many newspapers and magazines shows that more women’s books are being reviews, and my non-scientific survey shows that they’re being written about somewhat less dismissively than they were when I was starting out and “chick lit” was a thing. The New York Times these days is a lot less likely to routinely hand out the two-reviews-and-a-profile “hat trick” to white male novelists…and the paper reviews romance, the same as it does mysteries and sci-fi and thrillers. In addition, a few of the worst offenders ended up as casualties of the #MeToo movement, and women have taken their places. That being said, things aren’t perfect. I joke that I’ve been lucky enough to age out of the chick lit demographic, and into the women’s fiction bracket. Then I’ll point out that there isn’t ‘men’s fiction’ – that’s just fiction. Those are just books. Men are still the default position, and women are still the other, the exception, the outlier.
I remain hopeful, and I believe that the more women in power we have, the more women in top editorial positions, deciding whose books get reviews and who gets to review them, the better off we’ll be.