Tag Archives: Mary McCarthy

Book Review: The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

bestofeverythingThe Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe was a book I was inspired to read by the wonderful TV series Mad Men, much at the same time as I decided I would read The Group by Mary McCarthy which also featured in the show. Mad Men was a big inspiration a couple of of years ago, prompting book choices and Spotify playlists to accompany it and seeing Don Draper reading this book in bed in his pyjamas trying to get a better understanding of women really had me intrigued.

Set in 1950s New York, The Best of Everything tells the stories of several young women starting off their careers, fleeing their past, drawn by the lights and promise of the big city. I really wanted to love this book, and there were aspects of it that I did enjoy – the tales of excess in the publishing world, editors taking three-hour boozy lunches, the descriptions of the girls’ lives and everyday things such as clothes and hairstyles.

typingpoolI understand it’s popularity at the time – it doesn’t shy away from pre-marital sex or alcohol abuse or abortion. And it does portray a glamorous lifestyle, if not glamorous then certainly exciting. I liked the author’s note at the beginning, which described the young women in the typing pool who were typing up Rona Jaffe’s manuscript, and how they took to sharing the manuscript in a bid to find out what would happen next. It was the first time they felt that they had read about women just like themselves. I was intrigued by the characters, but I found myself incredibly frustrated by most of them too. All of them, at one point or another, are under some kind of illusion about a man. I wanted to shake them and tell them not to be so naive. I find it saddens me that even the more successful women (like Caroline with her career as an editor just kicking off) dreaming of finding a husband and spending days playing house. I know that says more about me and the time I live in (for which I am eternally grateful!) but I think I was looking for something a bit more feminist, about women making their way despite the cultural expectations. It’s not the book’s fault it didn’t do this and it is possibly ‘more fool me’ for expecting something different.

It has lead me to do a bit of internet browsing on the topic and I find it so fascinating, listening to women (and men) speaking at the time and the views they expressed. There’s an eye-opening video on youtube about Attitudes towards working women in the 1950s which I just had to share. I think it portrays very well the threat mean felt by what they called ‘career girls’, which lead them to patronising women in an effort to reinforce the expectation that a woman’s goal in life should be to have a husband, settle down and have a family, whether she thinks so or not. This video in particular is so condescending towards a young ‘career girl’ that you can but shake your head in disbelief. Of course, I’m looking at the book (and this video) with my 21st-century views and cultural landscape. I really do wonder what I would have done if I had been born 60 years ago and had been starting my career in the ’50s. Saying that though, both of my grandmothers continued to work after they were married, and returned to work when their children were at school so perhaps life in the US in the ’50s for young women was a different experience to the UK.

I have recently been given a Nook from my work and it just so happened that this book had already been loaded up there. It was an odd experience, especially when the book is set in a publishing house and there is often talk of carting manuscripts about. I started writing this review and it ended up as much a discussion about the Nook as the book itself so I have split it into two separate posts – so my post On eReaders will follow.

On a side note, if you haven’t watched Mad Men then I encourage you to do so – the writing is brilliant, and the characters (although flawed) are just continually interesting. I love that the show treats its characters like real people – the writers realise that their characters are changeable, that they grow and make mistakes and can often do surprising and unexpected things – it is very hard to pigeon-hole any one of them. And the setting and weaving in of different historical and cultural events is just brilliant, I can’t recommend it highly enough. But I’ll stop rambling about the greatness of Mad Men now, I promise. The Best of Everything ceratinly got me thinking even if I found it frustrating. Definitely a book to read with it’s time and setting in mind. I’d quite like to see the film as well (which was filmed in the late ’50s) – the movie poster is pretty enchanting…the-best-of-everything-movie-poster-751438

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Book Club Meeting # 5 – Lace by Shirley Conran

After a bit of a delay, we finally got back together for our book club meeting. It has been a little erratic so far and I think we have only had one meeting with all members in attendance! We had a plan to just always do it on the first Tuesday of the month but that hasn’t worked out. Next book club meeting will be on the 4th of December!

This month we had read Lace by Shirley Conran, recently reissued by Canongate Books on the 30th anniversary of its original release in 1982. None of us had heard of it before then (it does, after all, predate the birth of everyone in our book club…). Everyone seemed to love it, despite being put off a little by the gruesome first chapter. After that, it is well worth a read. We all agreed that it was scandalous and a little over the top but we liked the female characters and finding out about the calamities of their love lives.

It did bring to mind some of The Group by Mary McCarthy, the women, their love lives and careers but I enjoyed Lace far, far more – it makes The Group incredibly dreary in comparison!

I have given Lace to my mum to read – she read it years ago and wanted to read it again. And, she also pointed me in the direction of Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann which I am currently reading – again, some of it is a bit over the top but I am quite enjoying an easy read. I’ll let you know how I enjoy it in due course…

Next month’s book is We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

Here’s the description from the publisher Serpent’s Tail.


‘Eva never really wanted to be a mother; certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher who tried to befriend him. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood and Kevin’s horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her absent husband, Franklyn. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.’

This book has been around for a while (it was originally published in 2003), well known since it won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005. From the blurb it sounds like something Jodi Picoult would write about. I’ll admit that this book doesn’t immediately appeal to me but that’s the good thing about the book club – trying out new books that I wouldn’t have chosen myself.

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Book Club – Meeting #2

At long last my book club met up again, a month later than originally planned but worth the wait!

We had been reading Mary McCarthy’s The Group and it received mixed reviews.

I enjoyed the book. I liked the representations of life as a woman in the mid-30s in New York. If I’m honest I can’t remember which character was which now, but my overall impression was that life for women was portrayed very sadly. None of the women seemed to have rewarding relationships with men, or even with each other, with the exception of one of the characters, Polly. They seemed to be dominated, particularly clear in the case of Priss whose paediatrician husband bears over her pregnancy and the infancy of their child, telling her what to do and how to treat the baby, and treating her as a guinea pig for his own ideas on mothering. I found it strange how compliantly she agrees to his decisions, despite her own reservations about it all.

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Erratic Reads

The past few weeks have been very quiet on the blog front. I have been reading but I have been a bit all over the place, dipping in and out of poetry, short stories and a couple of novels. I thought I’d do a little summary of my reading in the past few weeks as I haven’t done a review for a little while.

BOOKS

To begin with, I spent a couple of weeks reading The Group by Mary McCarthy. It’s my first book club read so I’m waiting to discuss it with my fellow bookclubbers before commenting on it on my blog. What I will say though is that I enjoyed it, and was surprised by its frankness on certain women’s subjects, which even by today’s standards aren’t that easy to come across in popular fiction. More on that in a couple of weeks…

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Book Club – First Meeting

The Group by Mary McCarthy

I’ve started up a book club with a few of my friends (all female). Our first meeting took a while to organise – turns out we all have quite hectic schedules! When we finally managed to get together there wasn’t really that much book chat. We focussed more on catching up on gossip and drinking tea but we did however decide on our first novel – Mary McCarthy’s The Group.

I was given the task of picking the first novel as I was playing hostess and since this had been on my reading list for a while (and I already had it sitting on my shelf) it seemed like a natural choice. It follows a group of young female graduates, trying to start up their careers and find love in 1930s New York and I’d say that my friends and I are at a similar stage, having graduated within the past couple of years. Perhaps the central belt of Scotland in 2012 is not quite as glamorous as the Big Apple but I hope we will all get something out of it. We’ll find out next month if it was a good choice! Looking forward to getting started and meeting up next month to discuss it. Will update after our second meeting!

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