Monday, February 27, 2012

{review} the best of everything

Rona Jaffe The Best of Everything (1958)

 
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 of them 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 Staten 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 underneath kerchiefs. Some of them are wearing chic black suits (maybe last year's but who can tell?) and kid gloves and are carrying their lunches in violet-sprigged Bonwit Teller paper bags. None of them has enough money.
The whole time I was reading The Best of Everything (set in 1952) I realised that I would never be able to separate it in my head from Mary McCarthy's The Group ({REVIEW}; set in 1933). The characters could easily walk in and out of each others' books, despite the twenty year difference in their setting. Both are books in which women struggle to achieve their goals in a world where men hold nearly all the aces (I think I need to reassess my metaphors, but you get the picture).
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.
If you liked The Group, you will love TBOE. The office settings of the novel are also very, very 'Mad Men'-like (especially the drinking: "Waiters were moving through the crowd with trays of highballs, and everyone was drinking as if he were about to be set adrift on a raft").

In essence, The Best of Everything traces the lives of a group (there we go!) of women in New York. All are in some way associated with a publishing house. The main character, Caroline ("sensible and compassionate"), is determined to work her way out of the typing pool and into an editor's office but is not sure she possesses what it takes:
She was troubled, and thinking. She didn’t want to be a success if that meant watching out for people with dark lives who were afraid of you for no reason you could fathom.
Other girls in the office represent other 'types' of women, for instance, "the girls who thought life stopped on their wedding day in that one moment of perfect achievement, like the figures in Keats’s poem about the Greek vase." Then there's April, naively in search of a man to look after her; and Gregg, the part-time typist/actress - with "the sort of mouth that made smoking a cigarette look somehow sinful". The common theme is love - Caroline's inability to move on from the fiancé who dumped her; April's doomed pursuit of a spoiled playboy:
She was ninety-eight per cent in love with him already. It was a real New York success story, she was thinking, and now she knew what she had come to New York to find. Not business success, but love. Success in love was every bit as important as success in a career – even more so for a woman.
Then there's Gregg's obsession with a cold playwright ("The only thing in the world was this man she was following secretly, keeping him always in sight because he meant warmth and life and cheerfulness even in this bleak, empty landscape of the park"); Barbara, the divorcée single mother, surrounded by men who confuse love "with another four-letter word that people don’t mention in polite company" and fated to fall for a married man; Mary Agnes, entirely bound up in the plans for her wedding ("The office was a place to work and earn money, that was all... Her real life, the things that mattered to her, was at home on Crescent Avenue, in her cedar hope chest").
There were some lovers you could have once, and only once, and then you never wanted to have them again. Not that they weren’t skillful and considerate, because they usually were. But they had held each other out of loneliness and fear and curiosity and lust and hope that this time they would find something beautiful. And in the morning they would find sheets that looked like a geographical terrain, and perhaps an overturned ash tray on the rug beside the bed, and no trace whatever of the face of love.
One thing I admired about The Group was the precision with which McCarthy managed to weave the multiple protagonists' lives together, and this too is an admirable feature of The Best of Everything. If anything, TBOE lacks the crispness and the hard editing of The Group. It was a bit long and in places somewhat indulgent, I thought:
Daydreams are harmless and they do make a great difference; sometimes all the difference in the world while you’re waiting for something real and good.
It was interesting to read in the Introduction that The Best of Everything was a first novel and was published almost without any editorial input.

Rating: really enjoyed it, but it did go on a bit - 4/5. 

If you liked this... I though The Group was better {REVIEW: where I also suggest Helen Gurney Brown's Sex and the Single Girl}

 

2 comments:

  1. I read this last summer and really enjoyed it. I've also read The Group, and know just what you mean! But I felt The Group was more literary and the dialogue was just crackingly good. Rona Jaffe's novel isn't quite so brilliant, but it was a pretty damn fine read nevertheless.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Cheers! I have another McCarthy to read now - The Company She Keeps - so I'm hoping it's as good as The Group.

    ReplyDelete

{READ IN 2017}

  • MARCH
  • 23.
  • 22.
  • 21.
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • FEBRUARY
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • JANUARY
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore

{READ IN 2016}

  • (K = Kindle; rr = re-read)
  • DECEMBER
  • 92. Richardson's First Case - Basil Thomson [K]
  • 91. The Alington Inheritance - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 90. Orphan X - Gregg Hurwitz [K]
  • 89. The House of Godwinsson [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 88. Music Tells All [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 87. Helen Passes By [Bobby Owen 23] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • NOVEMBER
  • 86. It Might Lead Anywhere [Bobby Owen 22] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 85. There's a Reason for Everything [Bobby Owen 21] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 84. Secrets Can't Be Kept [Bobby Owen 20] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • OCTOBER
  • 83. Night's Cloak [Bobby Owen 19] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 82. The Conqueror Inn [Bobby Owen 18] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 81. The Diabolic Candelabra [Bobby Owen 17] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 80. The Dark Garden [Bobby Owen 16] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • SEPTEMBER
  • 79. Picture Miss Seeton - Heron Carvic [K]
  • 78. Down Under (Benbow Smith 4) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 77. Walk with Care (Benbow Smith 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 76. Danger Calling (Benbow Smith 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 75. Fool Errant (Benbow Smith 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 74. The Annam Jewel - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 73. Mr Zero - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 72. Will o' the Wisp - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 71. Red Shadow - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 70. Pursuit of a Parcel (Lamb 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 69. Who Pays the Piper (Lamb 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 68. The Blind Side (Lamb 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 67. Outrageous Fortune - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 66. The Amazing Chance - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 65. Red Stefan - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • AUGUST
  • 64. The Coldstone - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 63. Anne Belinda - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 62. The Black Cabinet - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 61. Hue & Cry - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 60. The Skin Collector - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 59. The Kill Room - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 58. Nothing Venture - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 57. Kingdom Lost - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 56. Beggar's Choice - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 55. Hole and Corner - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 54. Touch and Go - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 53. The Red Lacquer Case - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 52. Run! - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 51. Fear by Night - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • JULY
  • 50. The Dower House Mystery - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 49. The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 48. Weekend with Death - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 47. Blindfold - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 46. Silence in Court - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 45. Acts of the Assassins - Richard Beard [K]
  • JUNE
  • 44. Hack - Kieran Crowley [K]
  • 43. The Portable Veblen - Elizabeth McKenzie [K]
  • 42. The Spirit Murder Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • MAY
  • 41. The Ginger Cat Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 40. The Pleasure Cruise Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 39. The Polo Ground Murder - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • APRIL
  • 38. The Outsider - Jason Dean [K]
  • 37. The Hunter's Oath - Jason Dean [K]
  • 36. Missing or Murdered - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 35. The Beetle - Richard Marsh [K]
  • MARCH
  • 34. A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell 1) - Deanna Raybourn [K]
  • 33. The Chimera Vector - Nathan M. Farrugia [K]
  • 32. An Infamous Army - Georgette Heyer [K]
  • 31. Mr Bazalgette's Agent - Leonard Merrick
  • 30. Don't Tell - Karen Rose [K]
  • 29. Say Goodbye - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 28. Gone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 27. The Killing Hour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 26. The Next Accident - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 25. The Third Victim - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • FEBRUARY
  • 24. The Perfect Husband - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 23. Find Her - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 22. Fear Nothing - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 21. Catch Me - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 20. Love You More - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 19. Live to Tell - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 18. The Neighbour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 17. Hide - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 16. Alone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 15. The Humans - Matt Haig [K]
  • 14. Utopian Man - Lisa Lang
  • 13. Love Insurance - Earl Derr Biggers [K]
  • JANUARY
  • 12. The Ignition Effect - Viv Ronnebeck [K]
  • 11. My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin [K]
  • 10. Dangerous & Unseemly - K. B. Owen [K]
  • 9. In Bitter Chill - Sarah Ward [K[
  • 8. Half a Crown - Jo Walton [K]
  • 7. Ha'penny - Jo Walton [K]
  • 6. Hilda Wade: A Woman with Tenacity of Purpose - Grant Allen [K]
  • 5. The Case of William Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 4. Blue Murder - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 3. Bleeding Hooks - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 2. Knock, Murderer, Knock! - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 1. Ten Star Clues [Bobby Owen 15] - E. R. Punshon [K]