It would be impossible to review The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, in 2013 and not make mention of the television show Mad Men. Both are concerned with life in and around New York City in the ’50s (and ’60s and ’70s, for the show); both depict what life was like for working women before the feminist movement made gains in achieving equality; both are a masterful blend of gallows humor and real pathos. I think the two serve as comfortable companions for one another–especially if you would like to see more of Joan, Peggy, and Betty on the show.
Jaffe’s novel–implicitly based on her own experiences as an editor in NYC–provides us with some interesting insights on the ’50s, NYC female experience. Written entirely from the female perspective, The Best of Everything puts us directly in women’s shoes; their relationships, dilemmas, and choices are presented with urgency and importance. We get the chance to really understand the inner life of each woman, and so their challenges and triumphs become incredibly meaningful, and their blunders extremely painful. Caroline, April, Barbara, and Gregg lead vastly different lives–one highly career-orientated, one marriage-oriented, one relationship-oriented, and another a mixture of the two–but each one is presented fairly. There aren’t any value-judgments assigned to their choices (at least, until one of them actually begins stalking the man she loves…but I don’t want to give away too much). Anyway, as you can tell, I really liked this aspect of Jaffe’s work.
I also was impressed by how surprising the novel was! This is a narrative that many of us may already consider ourselves familiar with–naive working girls in the city!–and yet Jaffee’s story takes some surprising turns. Caroline, for example, arrives in NYC ready to work only to forget the pain of being dumped by her fiancee, and then finds herself loving and excelling at her career. She eventually reconnects with her ex-fiancee, and in a romantic comedy or something like it, he would realize she is the one for him. Jaffe, of course, takes a more realistic–and heartbreaking–route. Each of the women’s stories has at least one shocking moment like this, and each one feels organic to that character’s journey. It’s not a novel where everyone gets their happy ending. And I like that!
Finally, though The Best of Everything was originally published in 1958, it remains eerily relatable. One of the driving themes of the novel is how women define “success”–in life, in business–and how each woman tries to achieve it in a different way. That theme is as pertinent today as it was in the ’50s! You may see yourself reflected a bit in each character, but I saw myself most in Caroline: the Ivy Leaguer career girl, driven to make something of herself in a society that tends to undervalue her contributions because of her gender. I have certainly had some of the same thoughts about balancing careers and relationships as Caroline, and have been privileged to avoid the gross workplace sexual harassment she deals with. And though Caroline experiences success at her demanding job, she struggles to connect to her boyfriend as meaningfully as she did to her ex-fiancee. “Having it all,” Jaffe seems to say, requires constant balance and sacrifice, and may actually be impossible, depending on how you define “success.”
A great read, for NYC working girls young and old.
Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “‘I have to work like a man, fight for my job like a man, think like a man. I don’t want to be a man, I want to be a woman—and I know damn well I’m not a woman at all even at my better moments, I’m just a young girl with so many responsibilities it throws me into a state of shock.'”
Other Reviews: Book Snob, The Guardian, Wicked Wonderful Words