Monday, June 5, 2023

Book Review: Everything’s Fine

By Jami Denison

I have a strong memory of election night 2016…. Me, watching the election returns and crying, my then husband texting me laughing emojis as more states came in for Trump. There’s a reason we’re divorced now. 

Can two people at opposite ends of the political spectrum make a relationship work? Or has politics gotten too polarizing over the past decade? In Cecilia Rabess’s debut novel, Everything’s Fine, the author explores what it’s like to love someone who sees the world differently than you do. It’s not easy. But in the end, is it worth it?

The first time Jess meets Josh, they’re college freshmen in 2008 going to school in Washington, D.C. The same reporter interviews them about Obama’s election. She’s poetic, humbled, over the moon. He complains about the economy. Her picture ends up in the paper next to his, ruining the article for her. As seniors, they take a law class together; Josh needles her about affirmative action. He really is the worst.

Then, after Jess graduates, moves to New York City, and joins Goldman Sachs (she was a math major), she’s surprised to learn that Josh works there as well, and has been assigned as her mentor. When she jokingly asked why he didn’t tell their colleagues “I’m amazing,” he answers, “I don’t think you are amazing.” 

Let the games begin.

Everything’s Fine is publicized as an across-the-aisle romance, and Jess’s relationship with Josh is the spine of the book. But this is Jess’s story, and she’s so much more than a liberal who developed a crush on a conservative. (Josh, of course, labels himself a moderate.) A Black girl who grew up in an all-white Nebraska neighborhood, she was raised by a widowed father who took her to task for having white male celebrities on her bedroom wall. In college, she dated a white frat boy who treated her like a dirty secret, and none of her girlfriends were Black. In student loan debt, she chooses a high-paying job with an investment bank rather than following her heart at a magazine when she realizes her co-workers all get financial support from their parents. 

At work, the racial microaggressions are so insulting, it makes a reader want to throw her Kindle across the room. Jess is treated like an assistant, considered a diversity hire, shamed for giving her opinion in brainstorming meetings, and called a distraction. As she and Josh get closer and closer (they become genuine friends, and then he brings her aboard when he switches firms), I found it infuriating that he faults Jess for the way she is treated at work rather than seeing it for what it is. Josh, who grew up on the wrong side of Greenwich, Connecticut, but nonetheless went to Choate and considers a billionaire a close family friend, has a chip on his shoulder from growing up so close to wealth but not sharing in it. He cites conservative talking points such as “affirmative action is racist” and “Voters support Trump because of economic concerns.” A brilliant trader, Josh still believes in supply-side economics, a theory that has been disproven again and again. 

As a reader, I felt I should root for Jess and Josh to get together, for her experiences to make him a more enlightened person. But I didn’t, and she didn’t. I was frustrated that Rabess didn’t give Jess better answers to Josh’s conservative and economic arguments, and that Jess excused Josh’s self-centeredness because he treated her well most of the time. On her own, Jess is an amazing character trying to grow up and become her own person, and I would have wanted to read about her even without the complication of Josh. Yet there does seem to be a broader message in their relationship: If these two can make it work, can’t the entire country? 

Is mutual attraction and intellectual parity enough to overcome serious disagreements about the world? Rabess leaves the question unanswered, as the book ends on the day of Trump’s inauguration. I hope she writes a sequel, because I’d love to see how Jess and Josh deal with the country under Trump. For Jess’s sake, I hope it’s better than my ex-husband and I did. 

Thanks to Simon and Schuster for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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