” Couldn’t people realize what a rare and miraculous thing closeness could be, without trying to dirty it? She felt suddenly that the world was full of cruel and silly people like Tony and her family and a long, long string of girls she had gone to school with and boys who had pawed her—all of them separate and lonely and spiteful and afraid to love each other. ” (Ch.5, p.77)
The Best of Everything is Rona Jaffe’s classic that predates all that attempt what it did in 1958: the way of life of young women trying to make it on their own in a big city. The setting in time and place is especially appealing, 1950s New York City, one made very popular by the show Mad Men. It was peculiarly febrile time, in which women leave the comfort of domesticity and pour into the city in search of love and rewarding career.
The story revolves around young women who work at a New York publishing house, struggling to find a new way of living. Caroline is the most sensible and ambitious of this bunch. A graduate of Radcliffe, she is determined to escape the typing pool (and devil-wear-Parada boss) and become an editor. But she cannot forget the man to whom she was once engaged, with painful consequences. April, who has moved to the city from the midwest, sleeps with her rich boyfriend only to find, an abortion later, that she is only a fling. Gregg, an aspiring actress who only wants to get married, turns into a stalker after she is dumped by a man whose belongings she furtively rummaged. Barbara, single mother and divorced at age 21, spends her days wondering if she will ever find someone who will take on another man’s child. Mary Agnes is the one girl on conventional track—engaged to get marry and quit work.
You ask me if I love you and what you really mean is will I devour you, obliterate life for you and, worse, will I allow you to do that to me. That’s why I never answer you, because I do love you, but not in the way you want, and I never will. (Ch.15, p.212)
The emotional lives of these women are beautifully drawn, and Jaffe makes piercing use of the contrast between the surface allure and glamor of New York and the drab rooms they share. Beneath the glamor is the steady thrum of its characters’ most private anxieties: about money, about contraception, about promotion, and about marriage. Throughout the book, spanning three years from 1952 onwards, are sparkling passages to writing that track the minute-by-minute ups and downs of the characters’ confidence and insecurities. Every trivial moment is crucial for their progress. Sharp dialogue full of wit and humor is a strength of this novel.
“You want me to be your mistress, don’t you?
“Don’t say that,” he whispered. “It sounds so ugly.”
“It is ugly,” Caroline said. (Ch.29, p.414)
There are a few happy endings and some miserable ones, too—as life often dictates. My only gripe is that The Best of Everything emphasizes on love and marriage as the ultimate goal, as the girls only see marriage as the secure resolution. The book is not a feminist tome, but a sassy tale of New York life with more soul than the modern chick-lit.
437 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]