Scandal Reboot – Young Jane Young

Unknown-3  Since Alexander Hamilton had an extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds in the seventeen nineties, American politicians have been notorious for sex scandals, but Gabrielle Zevin uses the details of one of the most famous in recent history, involving an intern, in her hilarious yet poignant story of Young Jane Young.

With the requisite degree in political science and aspirations to someday hold office herself, Aviva uses her family connections for an unpaid internship in a legislative office. Her voluptuous figure does not go unnoticed by her supervisor who advises her to find a blouse to better contain her overflowing breasts, and by the Congressman himself who mentally notes her possibilities.  The story continues as expected, following the historic details fairly closely, but with a few embellishments on Aviva’s mother, Holocaust survivor grandmother, and philandering father.  The scandal is exposed when the Congressman and Aviva are involved in a bizarre car accident, reminiscent of Ted Kennedy’s scandal in Chappaquiddick,  and Aviva is branded with the scarlet letter; the Congressman apologizes for any pain he might have caused, and successfully wins reelection.  Sound familiar?

Zevin then imagines what life would have been like if Monica Lewinsky, the inspiration for the tale, had changed her name and moved to an obscure town in Maine.  Instead of trying to sell handbags or giving paid interviews to pay her legal fees as the infamous intern did, Aviva quietly disappears when she becomes pregnant.  Using the Jennifer Lopez movie as her inspiration, she creates a career as a wedding planner and seems to be on the road to recovery and a new satisfying life, until Aviva decides to run for mayor of the small town.  Her opponent, a former disgruntled client, discovers her secret, and inadvertently exposes her past to her thirteen year old daughter, Ruby.  When Aviva’s lurid blog resurfaces after fifteen years – nothing disappears from the internet – Ruby uses her mother’s credit card to fly to Florida to confront the Congressman she thinks might be her father.

The story is divided into five segments, from the point of view of Aviva’s mother with her own dating debacles and Zevin’s exaggerated take on the Jewish mother who only wants the best for her daughter.  The other sections involve one with Aviva herself as she reminisces years after the affair, and another with her daughter Ruby’s protracted missives with her penpal in Indonesia.  A funny pick-your own-adventure chapter details how different decisions made by two people with extremely different levels of power could have averted the disaster.  With a reverent nod to the politician’s wives who endure their husbands indiscretions, Zevin creates a sympathetic character in the legislator’s wife, who manages to retain her self-respect throughout the ordeal.

Zevin offers a redemptive  ending with Aviva surviving the slut-shaming and winning her election   – this is fiction, after all.    Zevin has her heroine choose not to be ashamed in the end – a good prescriptive for anyone with mistakes in the past.

Review of Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Hamilton – The Script

17-lin-manuel-miranda.w529.h529 Since my chance of seeing the Tony award winning play Hamilton on Broadway with the original cast are impossible (key players leave the cast in July), Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter’s book – Hamilton: The Revolution was the next best option.  Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton uses hip-hop and rap to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton, the poor man who fought the British, defended the Constitution, and helped to found the United States. Full of page-sized pictures from the play, the book itself is large-sized, with the actual script, margin notes, and background information.

As I flipped through the pictures and then slowed down to read, Shakespeare came to mind.  Charles Lamb wrote Tales from Shakespeare, with the Bard’s words “translated” to make the stories of Shakespeare’s plays more understandable to young readers (and anyone else needing notes); Miranda and McCarter did the same with their book Hamilton.  The script includes margin notes deciphering the action and sometimes explaining the inspiration.  The words follow the hip-hop beat, reading like poetry most of the time, creating its own silent music.9781455539741_p0_v1_s192x300

With chapters interspersed throughout the script, the authors follow the play’s progress as it developed in the writer’s mind, including tryouts for some of the scenes and songs over the six years before playing Broadway.   Miranda’s inspiration for lyrics easily adds to the drama, and the tour behind the scenes on costuming and tryouts provides better understanding of the the play’s construction.  At times, the prose gets heavy with modern political asides, teaching moral lessons along with the history lessons.

More than once I found myself researching Hamilton’s role in the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, in the creation of the banking system,  in his relationship to George Washington. His famous duel with Vice President Aaron Burr is well-known, but I did not recall studying the Reynolds Pamphlet when I was in school, or the scandal of his three year affair. Miranda shows it to be the beginning of Hamilton’s decline.  Amazing how history repeats itself – affairs and scandals and payoffs.

Miranda admits to poetic license in creating a few characters who did not really exist, and in romanticizing some aspects of Hamilton’s life, but for the most part, he got it as right as the history books (which are constantly being rewritten) allow.

I still want to see the play someday – must be amazing to hear those words and feel the beat of history.


The Watery Part of the World

It’s hurricane season on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Irene being the latest violent storm to wreck the shores.  A recent interview on the news with a long-time resident of those dunes told how she loved the terrifying beauty of the sea there, and planned to live there as long as she could survive.  In Michael Parker’s The Watery Part of the World, set in Nag’s Head, physical and personal storms invade the story and the survivors, and some will never leave.

Alternating between the 1970’s and the 1800’s, Parker connects the geography and the characters with the recurring storms changing their lives.  The story set in the 1970’s, has three remaining inhabitants on one of the barrier islands – sisters, Whaley and Maggie, and their handyman, Woodrow, whose wife died in a hurricane.  They live alone and isolated on the island; everyone else has been driven away by the weather.  Once a year the ‘Tape Recorders” interview them – anthropologists looking for pieces of forgotten history, and O’Malley carries the mail and groceries over the sound to them once a week.  Their idea of fun is reading the grocery store ads aloud on the church steps. Their story, sometimes told in a halting dialect, creates a strange Gothic aura of  interdependence.  They are the modern descendants of Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of  Aaron Burr, and the freed slave who helped her.

The backstory introduces Theo Burr, wife to the Governor of South Carolina and well-educated daughter of Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson.   When pirates attack her ship, Theo feigns madness and survives only because the scoundrels believe she is mad – thereby, untouchable.  Theo, carrying Burr’s papers, was determined to use them to exonerate her father’s reputation (Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and was accused of treason for trying to seize the Louisiana Territory).  Instead, she finds herself struggling to survive – scrounging for washed-up debris to make a shelter and befriended by a mysterious recluse, Whaley, who seems to have a connection to the pirate who controls the island.

Theo’s story is more captivating than her descendants, who seem to be locked in a psychological struggle of loneliness and missed chances.  Theo finds the strength to live her new life, away from the comforts of her rich existence, with only her portrait to remind her of her other life, and the terror of the pirate Daniel, Whaley’s former collaborator, ever-present.  The sisters of the seventies, on the other hand, wallow in self-pity and stories of the past until they become caricatures; their angst becomes depressing – Maggie reliving the memory of a lost lover with references to Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony, and Whaley bitterly invoking her selfish past.  Even Woodward, trapped to obeisance by some misplaced loyalty, loses patience with them, after a while.

A byproduct of reading the book was the interest it fostered in Aaron Burr and his relationship with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  In reality, Burr’s daughter was lost at sea while sailing up the Eastern coast, and her body was never found, but Parker creates an alternative life for her.   If she had lived, Parker would have her and her descendants trapped on an island.

Read more about Aaron Burr – here