Jo and Bethie are so excited to move into their new home on Alhambra Street in Detroit in 1950. It is a very big day for the family. And once again, Jo is unable to perform in a “ladylike” way and disappoints her mother. Why can’t she be more like her sister, who seems to just know how to be the perfect little girl? From Bethie’s point of view, however, being the pretty little girl may hold some power, but it also comes at some formidable peril. As the two sisters grow and navigate the decades of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and so on, we have the privilege of following along with them on their turbulent, sometimes traumatic, and occasionally victorious journeys.
This is an epic novel for Jennifer Weiner, who has traced these decades of history with warmth and insight, from the perspective of these two sisters who struggle over these decades to find themselves. Jo and Bethie, and the other characters woven around them, are so real that when they lose themselves, we feel lost as well, and when they hurt, we hurt. They are flawed and vulnerable and often become collateral damage in each others’ sisterly wake. But we find ourselves also moving on when they do and rejoicing at their successes as our own.
Herein Weiner is also giving voice to women, who have evolved over these decades and yet not evolved, whose roles have expanded and yet not expanded. Weiner addresses the many ways in which women are expected to fulfill all roles – mother, homemaker, breadwinner, and wife, and yet find time for themselves, to feel fulfilled and to fall in line with society’s expectations. She loops in race and prejudice, primarily from the perspective of the Jewish experience of a people who have been targeted but who also have their own stereotypical racial biases. In addition, she also gives voice to the women who have experienced sexual violence and sexual harassment over these decades and how it impacts and informs their entire life experience. It is quite symbolic that Jell-O, the quintessential 1950’s, traditional Thanksgiving side dish associated with Jo’s worst adolescent evening is later in the novel thrown all over an emblem of her daughter’s supposed progress. Jell-O becomes a symbolic fuck-you to all of the supposed progress, calling out the hypocrisy in the idea that things have changed enough.
At first glance, this novel might be written off as a simple story of two sisters, but it is in fact an articulate commentary on the struggle of women for power vs being overpowered and for status vs the status quo. It also directs us to be hopeful for future generations, especially if we stick together and have each others’ backs.