This feature (usually by sarah.of.a.lesser.god but this month by BeckySharper) is our way of sharing those book titles, both fiction and nonfiction, that have been standouts in recent reading, and hopefully getting some from our readers in return. The focus is primarily, but not necessarily exclusively, on books concerning women and feminism, and/or written by female authors.
My Pick: The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. Recently reissued in Penguin paperback.
When I first moved to New York thirteen years ago, women of a certain generation–including my socialite sixtysomething aunt, raced to recommend this book to me. It was, Socialite Aunt, told me, the book that she and all her friends devoured when they were college girls dreaming of moving to the big city (the book was first published in 1958 and a movie version came out in 1959). A precursor to so-called sex-positive, “liberated” women’s fiction like Valley of the Dolls and Sex and the City, The Best of Everything was the story of four twentysomethings women working at a New York publishing house. Three are fresh out of college and one is even a–gasp!–divorced single mom. If you love AMC’s “Mad Men” and its stylish yet pointed portrayal of women’s working–or not working–lives in 1960s New York, this is the book for you. It perfectly captures the struggles of that first generation of female college graduates to move away from home and pursue careers. Of course, some of them see careers as something they’ll have only until they get married. Others would actually aspire to a corner office–if only they can elbow the old boys out of they way to get their shot at it. And then there are a few strivers–cut from the same cloth as “Mad Men’s” fabulous Joan Holloway–who see Manhattan’s rich, worldly men as their own personal ticket to the good life.
I confess, The Best of Everything inspired all kinds of conflicting emotions in me. I recognize it as a classic about life at a particular time and place, and an important contribution to the canon of fiction by and about women. But to me it felt almost as dated as Pride and Prejudice (one of the earliest, and perhaps still the greatest, member of that canon). The Best of Everything’s protagonists are way more sheltered than any young woman today–despite their college educations, they’re all still naive virgins when they arrive in Manhattan and none of them have ever really dated, or even had male platonic friends. Except for young women who were home-schooled and went to, say Liberty University, you will not find a 21 year old these days who is as ignorant and ill-equipped when it comes to sex and men as The Best of Everything’s cast. The internet, feminism, and our media culture have radically changed that in only one generation (and thank Ceiling Cat for that).
Just as with Mad Men, I was deeply entertained by the story, but still cringing and horrified by its depiction of the casually hostile workplace and the ingenuousness of the women who worked there. I frequently found myself thinking, “I am so fucking thankful for women’s lib.” SRSLY. I wanted to go find Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan and all the righteous sisters of second-wave feminism and give them a big wet kiss on the lips–both for surviving this bullshit themselves and for saving me and my generation from it.
Rona Jaffe brings an incredibly clear and deliciously jaded eye to the lives of her protagonists and the world they live in. After all, she’d been there, and she doesn’t refrain from snarking at times, as in this wonderful bit about an otherwise intelligent young woman who’s stupidly intent on snaring the office Lothario:
“She saw Lorraine smiling to herself as she went about her typing and filing, and Caroline wondered whether even this level-headed and ambitious young girl was thinking secretly that if she ever went out with John Cassaro, she would be the exception. Girls always think “I am going to be the exception,” Caroline thought; it’s a weakness of the species, like a collie’s tiny brain.”
Harsh? Yes. Misogynist? Possibly. True? Absolutely. We all know young women like this, and Jaffe isn’t above pointing out their foibles.
Rona Jaffe died in 2005. Besides her novels, her legacy includes the Rona Jaffe Foundation, which sponsors six annual writers’ awards of $25,000 each:
In recognition of the special contributions women writers make to our culture and society…under a program that identifies and supports women writers of exceptional talent. The emphasis is on those in the early stages of their writing careers. This unique program offers grants to writers of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry to make writing time available and provide assistance for such specific purposes as child care, research and related travel costs.
$150,000 annually is an exceptionally generous endowment–by comparison, the Orange Prize, a single annual award to a female author, is worth $50,000. It’s also significant that Jaffe chose to help sustain the same struggling up-and-comers whom she made her money writing about. Funny, I don’t see Candace Bushnell doing the same thing, despite all the lip service she pays to feminism (unlike empowerment, empowerfulment means you don’t have to put your money where your mouth is).
If you want a summer read that’s great fun and will make you sigh with relief at how far we’ve come, I highly recommend The Best of Everything.