At the outset, Jennifer Weiner’s new novel, Mrs. Everything, pays homage to Little Women: Older sister Jo, a tomboy and athlete, wants to be a writer, while younger sister Bethie just wants to be a sweet, pretty daughter. But in Alcott terms, these two sisters are more like Jo and Amy: They scrap, they fail to understand each other, and sometimes they just don’t get along.
Told by turns in Jo’s voice and then Bethie’s, Mrs. Everything follows the two sisters from their Jewish girlhood in post-World War II Detroit right on through the present and into the near future, 71 years in all. The cultural changes of the 1960s and ’70s—civil rights, the antiwar movement, gay rights, the women’s movement and more—roll over Jo and Bethie, changing them as each struggles to find her way, and as they sometimes rescue or betray each other.
Jo and Bethie reverse their roles multiple times, so that what the reader expects from the novel’s opening chapters is not what follows. The novel is especially strong during Jo’s observations on race relations and the way even well-intentioned white people can thoughtlessly enforce institutionalized racism.
With its long timespan and its focus on cultural change, Mrs. Everything is a departure for Weiner, a founding godmother of fun, fluffy, women-centric popular fiction. In its period details, Mrs. Everything is a little reminiscent of Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event, and in themes reminiscent of Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion. Some of Weiner’s previous novels have taken on difficult social issues like prescription drug abuse, and Mrs. Everything’s flawed but approachable female characters, well-examined friendships and romantic relationships and often-joyful sex scenes make this vintage Weiner.
Because the novel covers so much time and ground, some details and secondary characters are skated over, and some sections feel rushed. Still, this is a warm, readable novel about figuring out what it means for a woman to be true to herself, and then figuring out how to act on that knowledge.