The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, is about young women working in Manhattan in the 1950s. They start out in the typing pool together, but ultimately pursue their dreams in publishing, theater, and the big goal, marrying well. The story takes itself slightly too seriously to be a gossipy drama, but it gets close.
The book came out in 1958, so I can probably get away with spoilers, but if you’re planning to read this one, stop now!
First, Caroline is a kind of annoying protagonist. Partly because I need characters to struggle to care about them, and Caroline starts out as a new grad with family money, and throughout the book, career opportunities and suitors just fell into her lap, over and over. Partly because her biggest character trait is her inability to get over the fiance who jilted her, but nothing in the narrative makes him seem appealing, so she comes off as maudlin and stunted.
There’s romance in this book, but it wasn’t obvious how it was going to unfold. Sometimes I think I don’t want romance in my fiction, but what I really mean is, I don’t want really obvious couples to take a long time figuring out their really obvious storylines. Caroline, April and Gregg meet various men, and have all different kinds of connections with them. The women are, in general, able to have romantic and sexual lives, even though they’re all looking for marriage. Of course, Caroline is first pursued by a man who smooths her career path, but the other stories were unpredictable and engaging.
I loved discovering Gregg’s storyline — how her relationship with writer/director David Wilder Savage (that name, you guys, he might as well call himself Guy In Your MFA) begins as a whirlwind, and is slowly grinds to a halt, as every time she comes in closer, he pushes away more, and every time he tries to take some space, she holds tighter. Her snooping and stalking seemed extra cringey. A careful look through a crush’s Instagram or Facebook isn’t a great idea, but at least it’s technically public. Physically groping around to read letters hidden in a sock drawer just felt gross, but I loved reading her descent into madness. I was — spoiler!!! — expecting her story to resolve like April’s, with a Nice Guy rescue after David Wilder Savage, and I was completely shocked by her end.
There’s a strange cautionary tale of a mean, older lady editor who’s cruel to the typing pool and rapidly burns through assistants. I was kind of on board with this, the mean boss is a common plot device because it's so realistic. But the evil boss lady was also somehow really bad at her job, and since so much of the story relies on how women need to work twice as hard (while looking pretty every day, and rejecting advances without hurting feelings, etc.) it seemed weird that the only lady in a powerful editorial job was really bad at it and didn’t put any energy into it. The novel deeply understands the awkward, forced laugh when a man in power says something sexual to women without power, but somehow also has a mean old bosslady who leaves her important work half-done, just ready for a bright young thing to snap it up…
Also, there’s a low-level antisemitism that’s probably quite accurate for the time, but didn’t really endear those characters to me.
Overall, I’m glad I read it, there’s something special in dated fiction, and I got a real kick out of some of the obvious expectations on women at that time, and commentary on daily life, but I’d only recommend it to big fans of the time period.