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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Not the Best

Rona Jaffe. The Best of Everything. New York: Penguin, [1958] 2005. 437 pages.

Generally, I try to use this column to point readers to neglected novels and stories that have business and economic themes. Sometimes I branch out a bit to include long-respected literary works that I think are particularly pertinent for readers of The Freeman.

I don’t think I’ve written a negative review before today. But this week, I’m disappointed.

I picked up Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything on the strength of a back-of-the-book blurb that read, “When it was first published in 1958, Rona Jaffe’s debut novel electrified readers who saw themselves reflected in its story of five young employees of a New York publishing company.” Jaffe herself tells stories in the introduction of being mobbed at book signings by women “with their well-worn office copy, asking me to inscribe it to ‘all the girls on the forty-ninth floor.’” And while I’m sure all this is true, and I’m persuaded that the novel had quite an impact in its day, anyone reading it for literary insights into the economic/entrepreneurial/business world that is the subject of this column should look elsewhere.

The details of the novel are nicely observed. There’s a cinematic quality to the opening description of young women heading to work:

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. Some of them look eager and some look resentful, and some of them look as if they haven’t left their beds yet. Some of them have been up since six-thirty in the morning, the ones who commute from Brooklyn and Yonkers and New Jersey and Staten Island and Connecticut. They carry the morning newspapers and overstuffed handbags. Some of them are wearing pink or chartreuse fuzzy overcoats and five-year-old ankle-strap shoes and have their hair up in pin curls underneath 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.

And the details of dating and cocktailing and necking and dressing and undressing in the ‘50s ought be enough to satisfy any Mad Men fan.

But here’s the problem: Though the book is filled with women who work, and though at least one of our five central characters purports to be a serious “career girl,” no one in this book about work seems interested in work. And because they aren’t particularly interested, their lives—and our reading experience—are taken over by the aforementioned dating and cocktailing and necking and dressing and undressing. The novel feels, in the end, like a lost opportunity.

It’s particularly frustrating because, toward the end of the novel, there’s a great little discussion between the most “career girl” of our career girls, Caroline, and her boyfriend, Paul. He warns her that she is becoming too serious about her work and is in danger of becoming “a crabby bitch.” He challenges her, “Do you honestly think you’re doing a job that some other girl couldn’t step in and do just as well five minutes after you’ve left?” She responds that he’s not exactly setting New York on fire as a lawyer, but he focuses on his job as much as she does.  Why, then, are they any different?

“This is my career. It’s an integral part of my life. What am I going to do if I don’t do this? Starve or become a playboy, depending on my economic situation. Neither prospect appeals to me at all.”

“It’s exactly the same with me,” Caroline said indignantly. “What am I going to do? Sit at home in Port Blair and polish my nails and wait for a husband? This isn’t the nineteen-hundreds. A girl has to do something.”

But by the end of the novel Caroline has run off to Vegas with a playboy celebrity. Her friend April has gotten married and gone back home. Her friend Gregg has gone mad and died from unrequited love. The working single mother Barbara has eloped with an advertising executive. Mary Agnes has disappeared into marriage and motherhood. And that’s it.

Reading the novel, and especially reading Caroline’s argument with Paul, where she is so contemptuous of the 1900s, I couldn’t help thinking of Edna Ferber’s Emma McChesney stories. Jaffe’s 55-year-old novel may have resonated with the women who read it in the 1950s, but working women of my generation should look to the 100-year-old stories by Ferber instead. Somehow, the work that’s a century old feels a lot more timely and has a lot more to say to us now.