It’s been four years since bestselling author Jennifer Weiner published her last novel, Who Do You Love? She hasn’t been quiet during that time—she wrote two children’s books and a memoir, Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing. But the 2016 election sent her into a thoughtful spell. “Like a lot of fiction writers, I was examining my work. What was I doing? What was I supposed to be doing? What do these times require of me?” Weiner recalls.
At first, Weiner tried to write a dystopian Handmaid’s Tale-ish story set in the future where abortion and birth control were illegal. Ultimately, she couldn’t make it work, so she put it aside to work on what has become Mrs. Everything (Atria, June), a novel influenced equally by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Weiner’s own mother. It traces how society’s attitudes toward women have changed over the last half of the 20th century through the lives of sisters Jo and Beth (named for two of Alcott’s “little women”). The two struggle to find their places—and be true to themselves—in a rapidly evolving world. PW called the book “vivid” and “heart-wrenching” in its starred review: “Weiner’s expert handling of difficult subjects—abortion, rape, and racism among them—will force readers to examine their own beliefs and consider unexpected nuances. Weiner tugs every heartstring with this vivid tale.”
A frequent contributor to the New York Times Opinion section, Weiner writes a lot about women in America: where we’ve been, and where we still need to go. “In the course of telling these sisters’ story,” she says, “I got to talk a lot about the issues I tried to get at in the first, abandoned book, such as freedom, and when you can’t live the way you want to because of patriarchy.”
For research, she talked with her mother at length and visited Detroit, where her mother grew up. (Motor City is the setting for the first half of the novel.) There, she looked at old newspapers, magazines, yearbooks, and pictures. “I sought out anything that I could get my hands on that would give the flavor of what it was like to be a woman in that era,” Weiner reports.
And she went back to Little Women. Reading it as a youngster, she was furious with how Professor Bhaer treated Jo, calling her writing “bad trash.” Weiner was, in her word, “pissed.” In sweet revenge, she has given her Jo “a much better ending.”
Weiner is cautiously optimistic about the future for women. “What writing this book taught me is that progress is not a straight line. There is movement forward and then retrenchment.” Paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she adds, “Progress is slow, but the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, I hope.”