Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: The Best of Everything (Rona Jaffe)

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

25 thoughts on “Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: The Best of Everything (Rona Jaffe)

  1. I think I forgot to say the main thing I get out of reading this ye olde women’s fiction is a huge amount of relief that I wasn’t alive then. The misogyny and sexism is bad enough now but back then? *shudder*

  2. Class Reunion would be an interesting followup at some point. I read it really early (I think I was 12) and I absolutely loved it, but watching your discussion of The Best of Everything makes me curious to read it again, now. It goes into the ’70s, if not the early ’80s, if I remember right, but it starts in the late ’50s (or very early ’60s).

    I love the idea of this book club. Oh! Her Mother’s Daughter by Marilyn French would be another great read for this group.

  3. The early chapters of description about Fabian’s as a workplace, when April and Caroline were fresh to the world of work, enchanted with New York and freedom, delighted me. As promotion fails to produce more interesting work (or, indeed, very much more money), the charm fades.

    I was startled at the extent to which romantic love is represented as obsession. Caroline and April are disgusted by Gregg’s stalking and her careful examination of David Wilder Savage’s trash, but that’s just the extreme end of a continuum. April’s conviction that Dexter wants to marry her is nearly as bad and as disastrous, as is Caroline’s continual idealizing of Eddie, even though he jilted her.

    Barbara and Sidney seem more evenly matched, but that little something that doesn’t ring true suggests to me that they are merely equally obsessed with each other.

    Mary Agnes alone is without an obsession about a man. (I’d say she seems obsessed with her wedding, except that the things she wants from it appear to be achievable, and the hallmark of full-on obsession is that the object is unachievable.) She does seem dull, but I think some of the dullness comes from an effort to portray her as realistic and grounded. April’s “happy” ending seems likewise flat and stale to me.

    Work does seem to provide a counter-weight to obsession, however. Caroline and Barbara, who like their jobs and obtain some satisfaction from them, fare best. April survives the Dexter horrors and their aftermath largely because she has to show up for work everyday. Gregg, who gives up her “day job” and founders in the world of theater, crashes, quite literally.

    But all the young women are weighted down by a shortage of cash. Work doesn’t pay well. Their lives are constrained by lack of funds. They go on dates with men who bore them, because dates yield dinner, drinks, and entertainment.

    The thing I missed most in the novel was characters who had interests other than their jobs and their obsessive loves. It’s New York, and no one goes to art museums. It’s the 50s, and not one of these women has a sewing machine or makes her own clothes. No one does needlepoint, goes sailing, plays a musical instrument. No one looks forward to getting married so that they will be able to bake or garden or have a dog. No one sketches. No wonder they have no conversation.

  4. Going back and re-reading fascinates me. Some books I find unreadable now (anything by Heinlein) but others (for me) hold up in one way or another (as did Valley of the Dolls).

    Is Marilyn French still alive? After some discussion Justine and I decided that we will only discuss books whose authors are deceased, thus freeing us up to say whatever we want.

  5. Gosh, I should have made the connection with lack of funds and the endless dinner/dates, because Jaffe is very upfront about it, but even while I noticed it I didn’t make the direct connection that to some degree having a man take you out to dinner meant you ate properly.

    I think the two things that ended up making me not connect to the book are the two you mention: the focus is very narrow (work and love) and the sense of outside interests entirely lacking. For that reason the characters felt less dimensional than I might have wishes. Valley of the Dolls can get away with this because it is so over the top and trashy (I mean that in an affection and positive way) but this is meant to be more “true to life” and thus I missed it.

  6. I forgot to comment that I thought the abortion was a realistic touch. I confess I wanted more information, but maybe that’s just me.

  7. Great analysis, Susan. And spot on. I can’t find it now but there’s a very explicit quote somewhere about why they keep going out with these extremely boring, awful men and, yes, it’s so they can eat better. At one point one of them thinks about how they never drink at home when it’s just women and I assumed that was about money too.

  8. She’s not — she died in 2009. I didn’t know Rona Jaffe had died, too.

  9. Because I posted in the wrong place:

    I started this book off loving it, for the reasons you both did. The view of the office, the life, the world of publishing as it was then. I liked all the girls well enough. It’s funny, calling them girls, and they called the men ‘boys.’ Caroline’s mom hoped she’d meet nice boys in NY. Caroline wanted to meet a nice boy. So they were all girls and boys and I’m not sure when they would become men and women.

    I ended up skimming to figure out how the different relationships ended because it really was frustrating watching them all make the same mistakes–even Caroline. Especially Caroline. WTF, after being the sane one, she totally goes April when she finds Eddie again. Sleeps with him, sees what she wants to see, hears what she wants to hear. I honestly wondered if she was being set up to figure out that Paul was a better man than she gave him credit for, that she really could form a relationship with him, but instead we have the wtf with the actor whose name I can’t remember.

    I think my big disappointment in the book was reading the forward by Rona Jaffe. She talked about wanting to write a book to reassure all those girls/women working in that world, loving and having sex, that they weren’t alone. I didn’t expect all the stories [except for Barbara’s] to end up as nightmares. “You are not alone,” seemed to imply more than, “Girls who dare try for more get slapped down five different ways.”

  10. It was horrifying, but at least he wasn’t a butcher. And yes, it was realistic.

    At the end, when she got in her red station wagon to drive off to her HEA, I realized that the other time a car had parked there to pick her up, the black limo–well, it was like a hearse. Symbolism, much? I liked it, anyway.

    I think the fairy tale part of this book is the fact that all these women ended up with these fabulous men. Wealthy men. A famous playwright. Hugely successful advertising man. Maybe that was more possible because publishing brought them in contact with them, but it felt a bit unrealistic. On the other hand, it often led to the idea that elements of their success were linked to who they slept with.

  11. Caroline certainly has the strongest voice of the women characters, but the late-breaking obsession with Eddie isn’t her only obsessive relationship. Her involvement with Mike is rather odd. There they are, seeing each other every day, calling each other last thing at night, expressing verbal love, denying the possibility of sex or marriage, playing thirteenth-century courtly love out the ying-yang, and one attempt at sex goes south a little and BANG. She thinks of Mike as an ex-lover (after she has a long haul at the “did it make me a woman” question).

    And there’s the oddity of “girls” and “boys” again. I remember very clearly (I was born in 1953) that my mother was shocked and horrified when someone was referred to as a woman. (To her it was one step away from saying “whore”, although she would never have used the word.) “Girls” were sexually innocent. They were social, not sexual. So were “ladies.” “Women” were created in the act of “becoming women,” through the agency of men. “Boys” also were social. They were required to complete “a couple.” If they were “nice,” they brought corsages, opened doors, and conferred chaste goodnight kisses.

    Perhaps Jaffe’s introduction makes some sense with that framework. Perhaps she did leave “girls” feeling that they weren’t the only ones with bodies beneath the tulle and bath powder. But she certainly doesn’t suggest that they can actually have the best of everything.

  12. And now that I think of it, it’s interesting that Mike is the final love interest for Caroline in the move version. They walk off hand in hand with “Love is the best of everything” playing over the credits. In the movie, his character keeps harping on how a career will wither and dry poor Caroline as it has Miss Farrow. The post-war, “give a soldier your job, move to the suburbs and buy appliances” theme. I was frankly relieved to find that missing in the book.

  13. The speed with which some of the relationships progressed was startling. I thought we were only allowed to excoriate the hook up culture of today! 😉

    But yes, that’s a good point: except for the rube April marries in the end, I had to wonder where were all the young men they might otherwise have been dating? I suppose Paul was a stand in for those?

  14. Whoa, that is odd. Mike and his story arc with Caroline is nothing like that in the novel.

  15. Yes, Caroline seems to have a push me/pull you relationship with the idea of love. She is obviously still deeply stung by losing Eddie (and I thought Jaffe did a good job setting up how she periodically thinks back to Eddie enough times that when he appears you can believe she would fall in with him). But she can’t quite self negate herself enough to marry a man like Paul just because it’s the thing everyone is doing.

    Caroline’s relationship with Mike was an odd one. I was intrigued that Jaffe made him impotent, and how immediately that put an end to the physical side of the relationship. That can’t be a thing often mentioned in books of the time (or even still), surely.

  16. That’s a fascinating analysis of the use of girls and boys vs women and men.

  17. The movie changes everything except Gregg’s storyline, if I remember correctly. Isn’t that an interesting thing to keep intact?

  18. Very rare, I think, even now. I was left unclear whether he was incapable or just unable to deflower Caroline because it was hurting her.

  19. And, of course, I’m quite unclear how generally true it might be. It was certainly the view of the world I got from my mother. She was the daughter of a math and shop teacher in Louisville, KY. She was the second college-educated generation in her family, but the first girl who obtained a college degree. She carried a double major in biology and chemistry, yet claimed that she believed until she married that people became pregnant by kissing. (Dissecting pig embryos didn’t disabuse her of the notion.) She pledged Tri Delta, so apparently had some social aspirations, yet she married a minister. They were married twelve years before I was born. She took my second-wave feminism as a personal affront.

    My father’s oldest sister, who was born in 1911, on the other hand, took a decidedly anthropological view of it. “You like doing things for yourself, don’t you? Huh.”

  20. Yes, it could be interpreted either way. Due to their reactions and the way the budding affair ended so abruptly I interpreted it as impotence.

  21. Pingback: Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: Rest of the Year Schedule | Justine Larbalestier

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