13 January 2013

The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

You see them every morning at a quarter to nine, rushing out of the maw of the subway tunnel, filing out of Grand Central Station, crossing Lexington and Park and Madison and Fifth avenues, the hundreds and hundreds of girls...They carry the morning newspapers and overstuffed handbags. Some of them are wearing pink or chartreuse fuzzy overcoats and five-year old angle strap shoes and have their hair up in pin curls underneath their kerchiefs. Some of them are wearing chic black suits (maybe last year's but who can tell?) and kid gloves and are carrying their lunches in violet-sprigged Bonwit Teller paper bags.

None of them has enough money.

 New York. January 1952. Caroline Bender is heading uptown to Fabian Publications for the first day of her very first job. If things had gone according to her plan, Caroline would be home now, instead of just getting off the subway, cleaning up the breakfast dishes after kissing her husband on the cheek and sending him off to work. However, things had not gone according to plan and so she finds herself in the city, painfully single and heading for a job that is now "more than an economic convenience." She is to be a secretary in a typing pool at Fabian Publications but she really just wants to forget the pain of losing her fiancĂ© to another girl. 

As you guys know, last year I got sucked into AMC's Mad Men. I love it. I love the characters, the costumes, the ad business, Donald Draper... One thing that just fascinates me about the show is the business and gender politics of the 1960s office. I have 3 or 4 books in my desk at my office about advertising, sex, and the office. It is interesting to watch a group of creatives (all men, of course) sit around a table and try to figure out how they are going to market panty hose. Hilarity ensues and of course, an office girl or two is pulled into a focus group to help the fellas out.
In season one, Don Draper is reading a book about office politics and women in the workplace called The Best of Everything. Once I learned that this wasn't just a prop book, I knew I needed to get my hands on it immediately. On the first page you meet Caroline, the heart broken graduate who needs the job as a distraction. You meet four other girls throughout the story, each of them running from something, finding an odd solace in work. The story is good and still, to a point, relevant. It includes everything that modern books have - work, books, magazines, boyfriends, lovers, husbands, nights out, nights in, weddings, divorce - just written in much different way. It kind of changed the way I thought about the 1950s & 1960s. It was a time where public image was everything, even if it wasn't the truth. People made poor choices then, just like they do now. Choices are made sober, drunk, or on impulse. Good, bad or otherwise, this is life. 
I think what I loved best about this book is how genuine Rona Jaffe makes her characters. You understand Caroline's need to forget that her fiancĂ© left her. You understand April's (a girl with a "one and a half" apartment and a desire to never go back home) desire to be loved and needed by people of means. And poor Brenda, a mother and divorcee just wants someone to spend her life with...and would love it if her mother moved out of her apartment...

Girls, we have complicated minds. As the Dowager Countess of Grantham says, "I'm a woman...I can be as contrary as I choose." Well said, Lady Grantham. Well said. It might not be true all of the time, but there it is. We over think and over analyze to the point of completely missing the point of things...

That is, I think, vital to understanding the beauty of Rona Jaffe's novel. It is about work, yes. What does it take for a woman to succeed in a male's world? What injustices do they have to suffer, do they think they have to suffer, in order to keep their jobs or get promoted to jobs they want? 
But at the end of the day, the story is about women. What they want, what they need, what they think they need, and how they plan the achieve the success they dream about. 

As an interesting note, there are a few reviews from the original publication (1958) that made me pause and thank God that I am not living in the 1950s. Or 1960s, for that matter.

“Rona Jaffe will have you believing that very shocking things do happen in New York bars and apartments. This is a story that should be read by girls with dramatic ideas about New York, parents with qualms about their daughters’ ideas, and men with baffling questions about girls’ minds.” --The Cleveland Press

And to that I say, "What?!" Oh, Cleveland Press. 

"An exuberant and readable book. Miss Jaffe is an artful and persuasive storyteller. It almost will certainly ruffle many a male ego.”  --The Spokane Chronicle

Because nothing ruffles a man's ego like a beautiful woman turning him down, I suppose...

“Any employer reading these pages will make a mental note to check up on what the girls in his office do after lunch, and with whom.” --The New York Post 

I know this might not be my best review of a book. The year is young so there is a chance I'll have a lot more that are way worse than this one. If we would meet up for coffee to talk about this book I would probably say something to you about how strong the characters are, even in the weak moments. That sometimes I wish I could be more like them, adventurous even if it meant some heart break. Because, even though these stories of women are fiction, they are and have great stories, heartbreak and all. 

"Such is the author's skill that this story of five girls is unmistakably the story of someone you know." --The Boston Globe 

07 January 2013

New year, New challenge

Happy new year, everybody! 

While I didn't finish my original list from last year, I did complete the challenge and come January 1, I was itching to start my challenge for 2013. 

Rachel and I are doing the challenge together (again!) and this year we upped the ante: 42 books for 2013. And yes, we know. We picked it on purpose. 

Before I even get to reviews I feel I have to put a bit of a disclaimer about my January reads. If you are following me on Goodreads (and with the help of a friend [thanks man!] was finally able to put a widget on my blog so you CAN follow my progress!) you will note that I already have 3 books read in January. A single week into the new year? How is that even possible?? As my dad likes to quote from Despicable Me, here's the deal-yo. 

After finishing my challenge in December, I had about 2.5 weeks left to the year...and a whole stack of books that needed to be read by January 4th. You would have thought that by now I would have learned my lesson about borrowing books from the public library. I have not. It is on my list of things to do. I couldn't just leave them til January 1st...so I started reading. Before the new year started I was a couple hundred pages into three books and had just started a fourth. I did wait until 2013 to actually finish the books, so in my warped mind that still counts for 2013. And that's my story and I'm sticking to it! 

Rachel thinks I've cheated. Sorry if you feel I cheated. Please accept the confession...and let's get on with the reading!

Here are the three books I've read so far: 

  • Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  • Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
  • The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
Currently, I am having trouble picking my next book, but it's not for lack of options. I'll keep you posted and hope to have the reviews up soon. 

What are you reading this year? Did you challenge yourself to read more than last year?