Review: The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

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Publication: 1958
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages:  448 pages
Source: Bookmobile
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Adult Fiction, Classics
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤⛤.5

“She was beginning to have that feeling that comes after midnight, of one’s thoughts opening out, flowering, groping out loud for some new discovery, some new truth that is really as old as all the hundreds of years girls have been confiding to one another in the relaxing intimacy of the night,” (Jaffe 52).

I stumbled upon The Best of Everything from; you guessed it, a Bustle article, which I again can’t find for some reason. I don’t know if Bustle articles just disappear after a while, if they don’t tag anything, or maybe I’m just hallucinating. Whatever it is it’s irrelevant, I found out about this book because of an article which talked about how relatable it is today and to the #MeToo movement and compared it as a much less dramatic Valley of the Dolls, and what an accurate description all of that is for this book.

The Best of Everything follows four working girls in New York City, highlighting the freedom, struggle, and daily life of working girls in the 1950s. Caroline is recently graduated and heartbroken and finds a job in a publishing company to forget her ex-fiancée and make something of herself. April is a sweet country girl in the big city who trusts the wrong men too often. Gregg is an aspiring actress and a little too clingy with her current beau. Barbara is in her early twenties, divorced, and a single mother to her young daughter hoping to find love again. All of these women cross paths with one another at different points in the novel without disrupting any of the other character’s narratives.

I can’t say there was one character I enjoyed more than any other, they all had their admirable qualities and their faults. Caroline is arguably the main protagonist and I enjoyed reading her ambitions in her publishing job as she worked to become an editor, but got incredibly annoyed at her long pining feelings for her ex-fiancée Eddie. He’s married and it’s been four years, MOVE ON GIRL!  I adored April’s sweet and naive chapters, though her innocence stressed me out and I hated when she was being taken advantage of by some of her boyfriends. I liked reading Barbara’s chapters of waiting for love and hopeless waiting for it can seem, and though I share very little with Barbara (being neither a single mom or divorced) I did relate to her a lot. Gregg probably got the least amount of page time, and I’m not really sure how I feel about how her story ended. Perhaps a lot of Gregg’s story is marred by outdated views of mental health at the time, but I would have liked to see more into her story than what we got.

The Best of Everything while enjoyable can be incredibly difficult to read at times. There is very open sexual assault and harassment, though it isn’t called out as such since these things were covered up (sound familiar?). And again, I absolutely HATED reading April and other characters being manipulated in horrible ways by the men in her life. It made me have to put the book down on multiple occasions, though I recognize its importance as these types of relationships are very much real.

Jaffe’s novel is a reminder about not romanticizing the past. So often we look back at the past and make assumptions based on things we know to have been unacceptable for the time. For example, this novel was written in and takes place during the early to mid-1950s, a time where people knew back then and know now certain stigmas against premarital sex, birth control, abortion, divorce, and a number of other things that were seen as bad. And because of our assumptions of the past, knowing these things were seen as bad, we assume that these things never happened, but just because certain things weren’t discussed publicly doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. Jaffe’s novel very publicly shows her women protagonists having and discussing premarital sex and birth control, talking about abortions, starting relationships with married and divorced men and some of the characters being divorced themselves. The Best of Everything tells us what was happening in the 1950s and what women were like, and it’s surprising at how little has changed.

One interesting thing in Jaffe’s novel is that when some of her characters get married they disappear from the text. They fulfill the role expected of them and disappear and it’s really really strange because it happens to a few of the main characters and it’s hard to go from reading about their stories and struggles for it to end in marriage and they disappear. They get their happily ever after and that’s it, there story ends and we assume it’s happily ever after but we never really know because nothing is ever said and no updates are given on these characters. It was a unique choice by Jaffe but one I really enjoyed, though it still unsettles me.

Overall, The Best of Everything is an eye-opening look at the life of the 1950s working woman and how much and how little has changed for women’s rights since then. It’s a book that should be studied and discussed in many Women’s Studies classes as a feminist work that should be on everyone’s list.

Favourite Quotes:

“She didn’t really want to forget all of it, because it had all meant happiness at the time it happened. She only wanted to be able someday to remember without finding it painful. That was the trick, to keep all the good things from the past and cast away the ones that hurt” (Jaffe 5).

“Whenever you’re miserable…it seems as though you’ve always been unhappy and you remember all the bad and disappointing things that ever happened to you. And when things are going wonderfully well it suddenly seems as though life had never really been so bad” (Jaffe 178).

“Sometimes the greatest favour you can do for someone is to let him be alone,” (Jaffe 208).

“She was worried about getting married. She knew it was ridiculous, but she was worried. She wondered whether every girl felt the same way she did, or whether it was a personal foolishness” (Jaffe 225).

“It seems as though every New Year’s Eve that you sit alone or go out with someone you hardly know or can’t bear, you think of all the other New Year’s Eves you’ve done the same thing, and it seems as if it’s endless” (Jaffe 310).

“What’s happened to me is invisible, but so is a pane of glass, and if you try to break through it you get hurt,” (Jaffe 327).

“Nobody cares about anybody…we could all die, and who would care? Does anybody really care about anybody?” (Jaffe 425).

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