On February 14, 1953, Valentine’s Day, Caroline Bender received a dozen long-stemmed red roses from Paul Landis with a humorous card. Mary Agnes Russo received a box of chocolates in a heart-shaped red box trimmed with white paper lace from her fiance Bill. Gregg Adams didn’t know it was Valentine’s Day because she had a hang-over and she was trying to revive herself sufficiently to attend a general audition for the ingenue lead in a forthcoming Broadway play, a role requiring a girl with clear eyes and a winningly fresh face. Barbara Lemont stopped on her way to work to buy some heart-shaped candies for her daughter Hillary. And April Morrison fainted on the sidewalk in front of Rockefeller Plaza.
Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything is sort of considered a best-selling classic. I read it once back in high school when it had a first “resurgence” as a readalike for fans of Sex and the City—independent women surviving in the big city…ok, I can see it. It’s had a more recent second resurgence as a readalike for Mad Men—different appeal factor (historical setting) but still relevant. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was reminded of this book by a Mad Men list on NPR long ago, but it actually took NINE MONTHS of waiting on the NYPL hold queue to finally get this book. (Note to NYPL: consider purchasing additional copies, also because the single one in your system is completely falling apart.)
Though I had read this before, I remembered nothing from it except that I was pretty sure I liked it the first time around. The Best of Everything is set in 1950s New York City and focuses on the often-overlapping lives of five young women. They can all be considered “modern” women, because they’re in their early- to mid-twenties…and not married. They’ve chosen, for one reason or another, to join the work force, and it is that one you often see on Mad Men—secretaries in typing pools. In this case, it’s a publishing house that bring these girls together.
What really gives the characters some depth is that they’re going against the grain for women of the era. but they’re not necessarily okay with it. For some, it’s not so much a choice to be single and working, rather a necessity—or at least a natural consequence—of some past experience. Caroline’s fiance broke off their engagement; Barbara has divorced her husband and is raising their young daughter. While being a single girl in the city is beyond common—maybe even the standard—in today’s society, all of these characters are experiencing life at a time when the norms are changing but haven’t quite changed yet. There’s a lot of conflict and tension you can feel between these girls and the world they live in. They’re not quite sure where they fit in, and you, the reader, start to feel a little out of place as well.
However, don’t get the impression that all of these characters are all strong, independent women that deserve resounding applause. Sometimes, they are terrible. And pathetic. And you want to yell at them because they’re actually taking a step backwards for women everywhere. But one of the fascinating things about this book is how relatable it can be. In this regard, it is sort of like Sex and the City, because something that someone does is probably going to strike a chord. As Jaffe was writing this, she shared pages with girls like her characters who were dying to read more, because finally, this was a story that felt true to their own lives.
So while you can finish this and say, “Thank god I don’t have to live in a world with such expectations,” the relationships, the loneliness, the uncertainties, and conflict between self and society—and all the emotions involved in finding one’s place—are still there. And you realize, there are more commonalities than you may want to admit!