Wednesday 2nd January 1952; 8.45am; New York City:
“You see them every morning at a quarter to nine, rushing out of the maw of the subway tunnel, filing out of Grand Central Station, crossing Lexington and Park and Madison and Fifth avenues, the hundreds and hundreds of girls. Some of them look eager and some look resentful, and some look as if they haven’t left their beds yet. Some of them have been up since six-thirty in the morning, the ones who commute from Brooklyn and Yonkers and new Jersey and Statten Island and Connecticut. They carry the morning newspapers and overstuffed handbags. Some of them are wearing pink or chartreuse fuzzy overcoats and five year-old ankle strap shoes and have their hair up in pin curls under kerchiefs. Some of them are wearing chic black suits and kid gloves and carrying their lunches in violet-sprigged Bonwit Teller bags. None of them has enough money.”
One of those woman heading out of Grand Central Station, on a cold foggy morning, was Caroline Bender. Her college boyfriend, the man she had expected to marry, had left her, and so her new job was to be more than the economic necessity she had anticipated. It would be the focus of her life until she found her feet again.
Caroline was starting work as a secretary, in the typing pool of Fabian Publications. The Best of Everything is her story, and the story of four other women she meets at work.
Mary Agnes is the woman who knows just what is going on at Fabians, though she doesn’t expect to be there for long. She is making detailed wedding plans, and looking forward to the future when she will be a housewife and a mother. April came to the city from a small town with dreams of becoming an actress, but she struggled and so she took a job in the typing pool and dreamed of love and marriage instead. Gregg is an actress too, and she has had some success, but she has to take on office work to tide her over while she looks for more opportunities. And Barbara is a young divorcee, focused on working hard and doing whatever she must to hold on to her job and support her child.
I was pulled into all of their lives, and those women provoked so many responses. Pride in Caroline as she moved up towards an editor’s position. Happiness for Mary Agnes as she shone at the wedding she had dreamed of for so long. Worry for April, as she so often saw love and a happy ending that wasn’t there. Fear for Gregg as her love became obsession. And such admiration for Barbara as she worked so hard for her child’s future.
There’s much, much more than that, but I can’t set out the whole plot.
Rona Jaffe paints wonderful,richly detailed pictures of these women and their world. I saw so many places, met so many people, and I watched the seasons change and the years pass.
All of the details rang true.
There is a great deal of dialogue, and the conversations are so varied and so real that they are a joy to read.
I can forgive a novel from the 1950s that spoke clearly and honestly about many subjects that weren’t generally spoken about then – subjects like sexual harassment, abortion, unequal pay and opportunities – many things. A few under-developed characters among so many. The odd cliché.
But I can’t quite forgive the Best of Everything for rather too much emphasis on love and marriage as the ultimate goal, and for having all five leading ladies either sailing into the sunset or undone by love. Or for making its one older career woman a harridan.
I loved the happy endings, I accepted the unhappy endings, but I just would have liked to see one woman stepping towards an independent future, becoming a successful professional, treating her staff and colleagues well …
But that’s not to say that I didn’t race through the chapters or that I didn’t love it – I did!
It’s a wonderful period-piece and a very readable book.