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?

Review: The Group, Mary McCarthy

Verdict: Upsetting.

I’d never heard of The Group before Claire of Paperback Reader posted about it on her blog earlier this year, but I was immediately intrigued by her description of it (and not just because the phrase seminal feminist text is delightfully absurd).  The Group follows a group of eight 1933 Vassar graduates, with each chapter focusing on one of the girls and a major event in her life: Dottie’s first experience of sex, Priss attempting to breast-feed her first son, Libby’s struggles with her career in literature, Polly’s involvement with a married man.  It’s very frank and upfront about these things, and was apparently very shocking when it was first published in 1963.

These are women with Advantages and Education and, in many cases, women who come from money.  They are proud, in the first chapter, to be seeking employment after college rather than depending on their parents or potential husbands.  They are politically aware and consider themselves independent.  Yet still their lives head in the direction of the domestic, and – here’s why it’s scary! – they seem to exercise less and less control over their own lives.

I was annoyed that the characters weren’t acting like grown-ups – but that’s the whole idea.  They are helpless because they are living in a culture that infantilizes women.  I had to stop reading for a while when Priss’s husband is telling her to breast-feed, and the hospital is telling her to give the baby a bottle, and she doesn’t know what to do.  It’s upsetting, I suppose, because she is completely at the mercy of other people, in the hospital after giving birth, and because everyone (the nurses, the doctors, and her husband) treats her like a child, and she duly acts like a child.

Sidebar: Norman Mailer wrote a crabby review of this book when it came out.  He said the characters were boring because they lacked determination and drive (see above re:  whole idea), and he was upset that the men in Mary McCarthy’s books were all jerks; he said, “[Dick is] still another in the endless gallery of Mary McCarthy’s feverish, loud-talking, drunken, neurotic, crippled, and jargon-compensated louts”.  Aw, gosh, Norman Mailer, are you struggling to find relatable, well-developed characters of your own sex in a book by a member of the opposite sex?  I CAN ONLY IMAGINE HOW AWFUL THAT MUST BE FOR YOU.  But don’t worry, the solution is simple: just abandon Mary McCarthy and return to one of your stated favorite books, The Sun Also Rises.  With that one, at least, you need not fear encountering an endless gallery of feverish, loud-talking, drunken, neurotic, crippled lou – wait a second.

Sidebar to the sidebar: I get Norman Mailer and Normal Rockwell confused. I doubt that either of them would appreciate this.

Mary McCarthy is writing a self-aware – and occasionally, I’m afraid, self-conscious; and perhaps just a tiny bit self-righteous – satire about women of a certain class at a certain time in America’s history.  It’s all about characters and moments, so it doesn’t have an overarching plot, but then, it isn’t meant to.  It’s a snapshot.  It’s a hell of a scary snapshot.

Y’all, I bought an adorable black flapper dress on Saturday, and yesterday I wore it, and my little black cloche hat, and some high-heeled black shoes, and told everyone I should have been born in the twenties.  I would just like to go on record as saying, I could not be more glad that I was not born in the twenties.

Truly, I have never ever read a book that made me fonder of my time period than The Group.  I am thankful for so many things: gains in the field of mental health, and ready access to birth control, and the beautiful, wondrous internet that lets me research things privately that I might be nervous to ask about.  We have far to go, but what a long way we have come.  What gains are you thankful for?

Other reviews:

Paperback Reader
Tales from the Reading Room
Verity’s Virago Venture

Did I miss yours?  Let me know!