Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Book review: The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

I was almost done reading the nonfiction book about feminism, Wonder Women, when I picked up this book, which was good timing. Set in 1952-1955 in New York City, The Best of Everything (the title line comes from a help-wanted ad the author once saw in publishing) is about Caroline, a typist who is an aspiring editor at a commercial publishing house churning out dime-store Westerns and romances, and her friends.

Caroline's best friend at work is April, the beautiful and sweetly naive Coloradan who moved to NYC to become an actress, but instead starts dating an old-money scion. Her roommate is Gregg, who is an actress, but is also dating a famous (and famously temperamental) play director. Barbara works at a magazine owned by the publisher, and is a single mom at 23. Also in the office are the more stereotypical women like Mary Agnes who has been saving diligently for two years for her dream wedding and plans to quit the minute she gets pregnant. Just like young women in publishing today, they are all broke, all going out on dates, fending off the advances of dirty old men (who sadly they have to work with), and buying clothes they can't afford.

The difference is, everyone assumes they're only working until they can get married. Caroline was supposed to be married but her husband went on a trip to Europe with his family before the wedding and met another girl. Both Gregg and April have hopes that they will marry their respective boyfriends. Barbara, who already married and divorced her high-school sweetheart, is much more jaded, sharing an apartment with her mother who takes care of her toddler girl, but she also still hopes for love. As the book goes on, Caroline, our primary heroine, starts to see her job as not just a stop-gap way to earn some money and get out of the house, but starts to see it as a potential career. She has a good eye for manuscripts and gets promoted quickly.

In some ways this book is like the anti-Valley of the Dolls. Set in the same time frame (although covering a much shorter period of time), it also deals with alcoholism, abortion, abandonment, failed loves, and all in the arts. But it's much more realistic and mostly has happy endings (except for one poor girl.) It gives a great feel for the era, having been written just a few years after it takes place, and it's a great time frame as it's before the feminist movement of the 1960s but after sorting out the men reentering the workforce post-WWII. Naturally, it also reminds one of Mad Men. The one thing I didn't like was that as each woman in the book got married, one by one, they were never heard from again. For some like Mary Agnes who wasn't a major character and who quit working at Fabian Publications, it makes sense, but it felt weird. On the one hand the author obviously admired and set us up to identify with Caroline the most. And [spoiler alert] she ends up deciding to be a career girl, and not to settle down just yet (until she meets the right man.) And I like that message. But writing the other women off when they married seems to be giving off the opposite message: when you find your husband, that's the end of the story for you. That's your goal and you achieved it so game over. But I'll attribute that to the times and to the author being steeped in the culture of the era which is never easily shaken off, although she consciously tried to go a different way.

This was a fun book that's a bit about publishing, a lot about being young and single in New York City, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Park Road Books.

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