Review: The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe

Not to be confused with The End of Everything! But read roughly around the same time. I know. I was really slow in reviewing this. I am just bad at reviews this years, you guys. I need to institute a system to make myself be more systematic.

Rachel (come visit soon, Rachel!) told me that she had to give me a book and for me to tell her what I thought about it, because she had loved it but it also made her really angry, and she wanted to know if my reaction would be the same. It was, except that I maybe did not love it quite as much, and it maybe did not make me quite as angry.

The Best of Everything is a book written in 1958 and dealing with four girls — women, I suppose — who live in New York and work, at least initially, in publishing. Caroline, coming off of a sudden break-up, wants to advance her career as an editor. April, who hails from flyover country (as vague as that is, I can’t even swear it’s accurate; maybe she’s from South Carolina, y’all, I don’t know), dreams of becoming an actress, while Gregg (a girl in spite of her weird dude name) actually becomes one. Barbara, a divorced single mother, tries to make ends meet. And find love. They’re all trying to find love. Love, incidentally, means marriage. JUST IN CASE YOU DID NOT KNOW.

Going in, I expected The Best of Everything to be quite like The Group, which I read earlier this year — and it was, in a way. It dealt with young professional women in New York (that’s what I am!) and made me massively glad that I live now instead of back in the day. But The Group also depressed the hell out of me from cover to cover, whereas The Best of Everything charmed me almost all the way through, then left me with a feeling of faint malaise at the end. I think The Group might be a better book altogether, but I’d be more likely to reread The Best of Everything. The thing about The Group is that the characters in it — while no less constrained by the norms of femininity in their time — kind of wanted different things.

Here we come to the crux of my (and Rachel’s) main problem with The Best of Everything, which is that all the characters wanted the same thing; i.e., love and marriage. And, look, I know that these were different times and that probably was what everyone really, really wanted, because of social norms etc. It just got depressing to see that although several of the characters were good at their jobs, and Caroline even sometimes made noises like her job was more important to her than Marriage, the main thing in their lives was whether the man they were sooooo in love with was going to propose. (They thought yes. Mostly the men thought no.) I liked the characters in exact proportion that they had other interests than Men, which is to say: Barbara, who had a kid; Caroline, who cared about her job; April, who liked shopping (look, I can sympathize); and in last place, Gregg, who I never didn’t want to slap.

In short, if you want to read The Group, but you can’t face the unrelenting misery (and it is p-r-etty unrelenting), read this instead. The writing is unexceptional but the story sails along at a nice clip so you never find yourself drifting away from the book and doing people-watching instead if you are reading on the subway.

They read it too:

Book Snob
Fleur Fisher in Her World
Curious Book Fans

Did I miss yours?

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12 thoughts on “Review: The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe

  1. I had wanted to read The Group, but you’re right, I just keep hearing about how depressing it is, so I just keep putting it off. Maybe I’ll work my way up to it by starting with The Best of Everything.

  2. I read this too a while back and enjoyed it as a relaxing summer read. I really think women did all want marriage and children in 1958, because, well, there were absolutely no alternatives with any sort of cultural validation. I guess it’s interesting that nowadays we have a horrified reaction to that – almost as if we might get sucked into that old vortex too, unless we resist really hard against it. I have to say that I also read The Group and didn’t find it depressing at all. It must be me! 😉

  3. When my daughter was in preschool, I was the only mom who stayed at home even part-time (my younger child really could not be left with a sitter even for an hour for his whole first year), and it was one of my proudest moments when all the little girls were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, and the others–spawn of important faculty members–all said “mommy” or “princess” and my daughter declared “paleontologist!”

    • OMG, I was an at-home mom who once had an “important faculty member” ask me (re: my lack of cooking talent) “So what exactly ARE your wifely duties?” A few years later, my 7-year-old was at her house singing one of the songs from “Twelfth Night”, and this woman asked her, “Where did you hear THAT?” And my blessed child looked at her in astonishment (“Don’t grownups know ANYTIHING?”) and replied, “Uh, Twelfth Night.” Yeah, take that, full professor of English Lit! It was sweet justice.

      • Yes, exactly; this made me laugh out loud with delight. That’s the right phrase: sweet justice.
        I’d have been tempted to tell that “important” person exactly what my wifely duties were, but I’d probably have wimped out and just quoted the line about lying there and thinking of England.

  4. I had read Ana’s review of The Group a long time ago, and went right out and ordered the book. Like many of the books I own, it still sits forlornly on the shelf and sighs at me as I pass it over again and again, but I will be reading it! Just don’t know when. I had no idea that it was so depressing though, and will have to remember that. This book sounds like it was interesting and involving, but I might also be mad that all the women in the story think that marriage is the be all and end all of life. I get it, I do. Being married is wonderful, and I love it, it’s just that I had a great time as a single girl too, and that time in my life was incedible. It makes me a little sad that this book is so dogged about it’s character’s pursuit of marriage. A lot like life, but sad nonetheless.

  5. Things where women judge their self worth by whether or not someone wants to marry them make me so, so sad. Especially when they’re like this one, where the women have lots of other stuff going for them.

  6. Nice review, Jenny! I saw ‘The Best of Everything’ at the bookstore sometime back and I was intrigued by the title and browsed it and read the description of the book on the back cover. I also Rona Jaffe’s introduction to the book. It looks like ‘The Best of Everything’ was a bestseller of its era and many women (especially New Yorkers) identified with it. But from your description it looks like the book hasn’t aged well, because of the way the world has changed in the intervening decades. Glad to know that you liked the book, though you didn’t love it.

  7. Great review, I have read it and wanted to scream at points where some of these women felt marriage was the be all and end all. (Just had to reread my review!)

    I have not read The Group, not sure if I could read another book of similar themes so soon?

  8. I didn’t find The Group all that depressing, though it was so impossibly remote to me at the time – those Vassar graduates were nothing like me or my friends – but none of them, apart from Lakey, probably, got what she really wanted out of life, and I suppose it shows how different life was for (generally well-off) women of that time, and pretty restrictive. The men were mostly pretty awful, though.

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