Jennifer Weiner | published June 2019 | 496 pages
GoodReads Summary: Do we change or does the world change us?
Jo and Bethie Kaufman were born into a world full of promise.
Growing up in 1950s Detroit, they live in a perfect “Dick and Jane” house, where their roles in the family are clearly defined. Jo is the tomboy, the bookish rebel with a passion to make the world more fair; Bethie is the pretty, feminine good girl, a would-be star who enjoys the power her beauty confers and dreams of a traditional life.
But the truth ends up looking different from what the girls imagined. Jo and Bethie survive traumas and tragedies. As their lives unfold against the background of free love and Vietnam, Woodstock and women’s lib, Bethie becomes an adventure-loving wild child who dives headlong into the counterculture and is up for anything (except settling down). Meanwhile, Jo becomes a proper young mother in Connecticut, a witness to the changing world instead of a participant. Neither woman inhabits the world she dreams of, nor has a life that feels authentic or brings her joy. Is it too late for the women to finally stake a claim on happily ever after?
Interestingly, I thought I was signing up for a light quick read..Eh, not so much. Here we follow Bethie and Jo Kaufman, 2 barely Jewish sisters growing up in 1950’s Detroit. I swear this story is like City of Girls, but youthful, Jewish, queer, drug addicted and racist in all the right places. Bethie is, the younger, smarter, prettier sister. Loves the dress, pomp, and circumstance of it all and is slowly learning what benefits and pitfalls ‘pretty’ brings. Jo, is the older rebellious tomboy. Unable to sit still, not very smart or comfortable in a dress or with attention. She too is learning, what being ‘different’ will mean in her life.
We meet both sisters while they’re in high school, right before dad dies. First dad is positioned as Jo’s savior against mean, overly practical mom. Distracting and de-escalating arguments between Jo and mom. Trigger warning: Mom is what I call a ‘boot strap racist’. Mom grew up Jewish and poor, watching her parents work very hard to succeed. She was picked on because of her religion and had ‘to struggle’, to make it. She goes on a rant suggesting “all black people have to do is work hard like her parents and they can do the same thing”. The old, pull yourself up by your bootstraps argument. No matter the systemic racism preventing Blacks from moving to certain parts of town or being hired for certain type of employment which would allow them the financial means to support their families. She explains all of this to her daughter Jo repeatedly after she fires her black maid because Jo was getting to friendly with the help. “Jo if you associate yourself with them it will be harder for you. You should stay with your own kind.” That kind being white, of course. If you can survive mom’s rants you’ll probably make it through Jo’s white savior acts of kindness later. #ChinUp All things even out in the end.
Once dad is gone, the real drama starts. Money is short and Beth is forced into working with her handsy uncle. Bey told y’all, Pretty Hurts. Jo starts her journey of discovering her sexuality and eventually comes out to Mean Mom, in high dramatic fashion.
Pros: These two girls led interesting lives and it kept me reading. Very unlike City of Girls, the writer uses what was happening in the world at the time and incorporated into her story and characters. I wasn’t a white teenager in the 1960’s so I don’t know if the story is realistic, but, is sounds like it could be. It sounds like if I was growing up in the time of Vietnam and communal housing, protesting everything, recreational psychedelic drugs, and women were expected to fuck men, shut up and have babies, and definitely NOT fuck other women – this would be my life.
I also really liked how the sisters never lost track of one another. Yes, they often made bad decisions and said hurtful things, but they showed up for one another when it mattered. I think that’s what real sisters do.
Cons: I hate that I feel Black folks were used as a prop in each girls story. No real action was taken towards the civil rights movement by either girl, just a black maid, some marches to piss off mom, and an objectified black man here and there. I subtracted a star for that and moms unchecked racist rants.
Overall, this was a good read. I liked the story telling and the sisters each had redeeming qualities that I enjoyed. Notable: Its not lost on me the girls are named Beth and Jo like the older sisters in Little Women. Little Woman was favorite book of mine growing up! Its like if Beth and Jo were plopped into 1960’s Detroit and had to figure shit out. All things considered, I don’t think they did a bad job! #GoodBook 21 of 42!