The 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.
I 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…