The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, published in 1958 and set in the early 50s in New York City. The story centers around the lives of five young women who meet when they are all working in the publishing industry and what happens to them then.
KATE: Well. I did not enjoy The Best of Everything. Some parts worked for me, but others I ended up skimming, including a great deal of the relationship stuff because it bored me. I was most interested in the details of working in NYC in the 50s as a young woman, and in the ways the life depicted in the novel might be similar to and different from how it is today. Had there been more about that I would have gotten into the book more.
JUSTINE: I loved all the bits about the working life and would also love there to have been far more of them. But the glimpses we get are awesome and feel so very real. (Down to the casual offers of books to visitors. I remember my own amazement when I first visited publishers’ offices that they would give me so many books.) I really enjoyed Caroline Bender getting one over on Miss Farrow at Publisher’s Weekly by sending in the announcement of her promotion to Reader that Miss Farrow had deliberately left out so that it winds up being printed on its own and not being lost in the longer list of Fabian promotions. Booyah, Caroline, booyah! I loved that back then there was a job title, Reader, in publishing. (In Australia there’s a job title, Reader, at some universities but I’m not sure how many are left. It’s definitely on it’s way out. When I was little I really wanted to be a Reader. I figured you just sat around all day reading, which sounded perfect.)
On this reread I was even more taken by just how vivid the portrayal of workplace harassment is. Her bosses are absolutely vile. That scene where Barbara Lemont is letched upon by Mr Shalimar ending with him drunkenly crawling under the table to check out her legs. Aargh.
KATE: That is one of the standout scenes. Mr. Shalimar is consistently awful but in a way I found believable. I have to wonder if it is based on a real incident.
JUSTINE: Given that the whole book is closely based on Rona Jaffe’s own experiences working in publishing in NYC you’ve got to think it is. I loved that we get to see the fallout of Shalimar public sexual assault. From Barbara’s stoic endurance, knowing there’s not a whole lot she can do about it, through to the repercussions for Shalimar. Because he got so drunk and so blatantly and embarassingly assaulted her at the office Christmas party in full view of everyone he loses face and some of his authority. They laugh at him. After the Christmas party every woman he’s groped starts telling her story and Shalimar is now viewed as the pathetic loser office letch. His superior is clearly anxious that he might have to fire Shalimar.
But, of course, he isn’t fired. Given that his boss, Mr Bossart, picks out his girlfriends from his staff that was never going to happen.
KATE: I have been thinking about why I loved Valley of the Dolls while TBoE left me cold. Part of it is the train wreck quality of VotD; you cannot look away as everything inexorably falls apart. But ultimately I found VotD more emotional and gripping and vivid. Once too often in TBoE the characterization and/or narrative felt too glib, too easy, too sentimental, too pat, and even too moralizing.
JUSTINE: Valley of the Dolls is way over the top. Way, way, way over the top. It’s a technicolour novel. And I love it. But I love, too, the relative calm of TBoE. The relationship stuff in TBoE does not bore me. I cared about all the characters. Especially Caroline. And I found the way they are all steamrolled by the culture that says they must find a man, they must get married, they must not be ambitious or too into their work painful rather than boring. None of them escape. And the only “happy” endings proferred are quitting your job and getting married, or running away with a movie star to Vegas. Um. No, thanks. It was triply saddening realising that not that much has changed almost ten years later when VotD is published. Though at least TBoE offers slight hope that their lives might improve. VotD is even bleaker.
KATE: The men almost without exception are awful, dull, creepy, and/or self absorbed. Possibly Sidney Carter (is that his name? the one who marries Barbara Lemont) came across as a decent fellow but even there it seemed almost too easy for them. Mostly I found the main woman characters boring and frustrating with the exception of Caroline. They are living in NYC yet they did so little except revolve their lives around men.
JUSTINE: All the men are vile. Yes, Sidney Carter is the least vile but even so. I’m not a fan. The whole system is set up so that everything men find interesting about women when they get together is stripped away from them after they marry—especially their work—so they then lose interest in their wives and go out and have affairs with women who are mostly looking to get married. It’s a pretty stupid system dooming almost any chance of happiness.
One of the things I like so much about TBoE is the way the omniscient narrator allows us to see the absolute gulf between the men and the women. When Caroline decides not to be Eddie’s mistress we, finally, get to see his side of things and it’s clear within a few paragraphs that he has no idea who Caroline is. She’s just someone he’s made up. And he, of course, bears no relationship to the man Caroline has fallen in love with. And it is in Eddie’s weak, conservative little mind that the novel ends. Chillingly depressing.
KATE: Yes, indeed. I agree that the gulf between the men and women is well drawn, to the degree that I found it increasingly difficult to read. Perhaps in a sense it is a more depressing book than VotD in that women are really not allowed autonomy or ambition. As self destructive and narcissistic as Neely is in VotD, she does obtain success (even though we, as the readers, knows it will all come crashing down again sooner rather than later), and it is understood by everyone that she would want to be a star and that she has the qualities of a star.
JUSTINE: Though it’s interesting that even in the world of show business there’s the frequent implication that there’s something wrong with Neely and other big women stars because they’re not merely wives and mothers. It’s almost like they’re expected to fail at it because they’re stars. You cannot be both.
In TBoE the assumption is that for women marriage means no longer working. I very much enjoyed how much pleasure Caroline gets from her job, from editing:
“It has started out as a stopgap, but now it had become a way of life. It gave her a sense of value and belonging. Perhaps that, beside ability, was what made her so good at the job that could not now afford to lose her.”
It’s fascinating watching her struggle with knowing she’s not meant to enjoy work, not meant to be ambitious. That she’s supposed to put love first. But she’s seen what can happen when you do that: i.e. April and Gregg’s total self-abnegation in the face of their supposed love. Neither of them has the slightest clue about who the object of their affections actually is.
The disjunct between April’s thoughts about Dexter Key and the reality of him is, well, wow. Dexter reads like a psychopath with zero empathy and an all-encompassing obsession with his own pleasure and avoiding any possible inconvenience at all costs. Hmmm, now I can’t decide if he’s a psychopath or a narcissist. Can you be both?
KATE: I agree with your comments about Dexter’s portrayal (and Caroline’s ambition). I guess that one of the things that bothered me was that it felt almost too much like the other women’s stories were merely there to act as counters to Caroline’s–but in that sense, given that I think hers is the central story and has the most variety–it makes sense in a structural way.
JUSTINE: I love the way Jaffe describes New York City. Unlike Susann there were many elegiac descriptions of the city which rang true to this particular New Yorker. It’s eerie how her description of the midtown publishing area is pretty close to how it is now. TBoE had a much better sense of place than VotD
KATE: Yes, the descriptions of the city felt true to life, although I am not a New Yorker and have only visited a few times. They felt as if she had (as she did) really walk those streets in that fashion. In general the novel felt as if it described things she had herself witnessed and/or done in one way or another.
Having said that, it is an entirely white world. There aren’t even any Jews. I think one woman is mentioned as having “a colored maid.”
JUSTINE: It’s very very very white and very middle-class. Caroline’s mother is the one with a coloured maid. None of the other domestic staff’s race is mentioned. Caroline also imagines that her movie star will have a “sinister oriental houseboy.” That common signifier of debauchery in Hollywood movies. Ugh. In this regard TBoE reminded me of Mad Men, which reflects really poorly on Mad Men whose racial politics should be so much better given the more than fifty year gap between the two.
KATE: Given that it was set in 1952 I was surprised there were no references to World War II. It was as if the war had never happened, which jarred me.
JUSTINE: It’s mentioned: “Travel was a new experience for their generation those early years after the war” and “It was two years before the war broke out in Europe and were all very nervous and full of ideals and we used to talk each other to death.” As well as mention of characters who were in the army. The Korean War is also mentioned. I assumed that part of why Mike Rice is such a mess is because of his wartime experiences which he won’t discuss. There’s a brittle quality to many of the older male characters that I read as PTSD.
(I admit I bristle a little at this particular criticism because it’s often said of Jane Austen’s novels.)
KATE: Hmm. I’m not sure I meant that as a criticism; it was more of an observation. It seemed curious to me that it wasn’t more of a part of people’s lives but I only say that because the war was so omnipresent in my childhood even though it happened long before I was born. But I take your point about Austen.
JUSTINE: Once again, like VofD there is much mention of gay men. They are referred to mostly as “fairies” but the vilest of the young men, Dexter Key, also uses the slur “faggot”. Because he would. Unlike VofD there were no references to lesbians or the possibility that women can fall in love. If there was I sure missed it and this is my second read of TBoE and I did not skim. I’d stake my life on this novel being populated only by heterosexual women. Alas.
KATE: Yes, the inclusion of references to lesbians and women falling in love with each other was the most unexpected element of VotD on my re-read. TBoE takes a more conventional route with its five women and their ultimate outcomes.
I want to add that your descriptions of why you like the book are very convincing and well thought out. I think that tonally it just didn’t work for me. Also I simply never warmed to April, Mary Agnes, and Gregg; Mary Agnes’s tale (for me) was dull although I think entirely plausible and accurate, and the other two I found unbearable because as individuals they seemed to have no scrap of self awareness.
JUSTINE: Thank you. Yeah, if you don’t like the characters or feel much sympathy for them it would make TBoE a tough read.
I know the book always gets billed as about five girls but I definitely don’t see Mary Agnes as one of the main characters. The book is about Caroline, April, Gregg and Barbara. They’re whose point of views you get, they get many more pages than poor Mary Agnes. Mary Agnes barely gets a look in, we don’t see her courtship, we see her fiance only after they’re married and only in the one scene, her pov is far more filtered by the omniscient pov than the other four. We never really see any of her inner thoughts as we do for the other girls. She’s the token girl who does exactly what she’s supposed to do: leave work, get married, have a baby, be happy.
There’s almost, but not quite a sneer, in Caroline’s view of her. I think she’s deliberately portrayed as boring. I also think there’s a class dimension. Mary Agnes is the one clearly working class character. She’s from the Bronx. She’s also not as pretty as the other girls. Frankly, I’m not sure if the condescending portrayal of Mary Agnes is coming from Caroline or from Rona Jaffe.
April and Gregg’s self-immolations really are painful to read. As I say above they’re what happens when the myth of romantic love goes horribly wrong. Though I’m not sure if “horribly wrong” is accurate. All of these girls have been led to believe that love is everything. That marriage is everything. Their actions are actually the logical extension of that. Love really has rendered them blind not to mention delusional and self-destructive. It’s awful.
Barbara’s romance with Sidney Carter is the only successful one because they’re the only two who are actually communicating with one another and actually seeing each other. There’s no disjunct in each other’s views of each other. There’s a friendship there, not just desire. He’s still twenty years older than her and a bit creepy but in the context of this book it’s the only equal non-delusional relationship.
My rose-coloured view of the end of the novel is that Caroline has realised that it’s all hooey, that she was being delusional about Eddie and he’s really just another Dexter Key only with better social skills. Everything is about his convenience. How could he possibly think Caroline would be happy quitting her job to be his mistress and filling in her time waiting around for him by being some old dude’s secretary? Ewww!
So Caroline’s, like, whatever. I love my job. This Hollywood movie star is witty and fun. I can party with him at night and and edit genius writers during the day. Eventually I’ll have my own imprint. I might marry and have kids. I might marry and not have kids. I might even not marry and have a kid. It’s my choice. And then thirty years from now I’ll make a motza selling my tell-all autobiography.
Please join in the comments with your own observations!
For (late) May our next book will be PEYTON PLACE by Grace Metalious