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bookbuffet features The Models of Yesteryear, This Week

abstract:The Models of Yesteryear, this week: The Best of Everything, (Reissued by Penguin, 2005) Rona Jaffe (1958)

When The Best of Everything was published in 1958 it was considered revolutionary. The book chronicles a shift in the social dynamic even as it was occurring, as young women began to enter the workforce in droves. Jaffe writes in her 2005 foreward to the reissue of the book, "I had the vision of the beginning of the book, which is all the hundreds and hundreds of girls walking to work."


January 19, 2009
Jaffe's novel revolves around the lives of four young employees in New York City: aspiring actress Gregg, with the hidden ambition of finding a husband; country bumpkin April, who succeeds in transforming herself into the femme fatale; Barbara, the single mother, who is doomed to life without a husband; and Caroline, who finds herself in the working world only because she is jilted by her fiancé. The escapades of the four are most certainly daring for their time -- living in apartments, crafting careers instead of having babies; even, gasp, sleeping with men before marriage.

The irony, of course, is that these women did not and could not have the best of everything -- have it all. Choose career, and they ended up out of the marriage market. Choose marriage and they kissed their jobs goodbye. Career and marriage were either/or propositions. And, for most women of the time, career and college were still viewed simply as time fillers until the ultimate goal could be secured: marriage, family, life in the suburbs.

Richard Yates alluded to this Fifties phenomenon of an either/or career/family proposition, when he commented about his choice of title for Revolutionary Road:

"I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs — a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price ... [A] great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that — felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit — and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties."

Spend some time with Gregg, April, Barbara and Caroline, and you will appreciate anew the spirit of the women who preceded us. The Best of Everything is wonderfully written -- sharp, funny, beautifully crafted. You will leave the story with profound empathy for these women -- and renewed appreciation for how far we have come.

What is the measure of success for women in the year 2009? For a surprising perspective on success for today's women, see Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All, by Megan Basham (2008). Now here is a book written recently by a woman born in the 1970's -- and that advocates a model for women looking suspiciously like that of the 1950's! Basham's thesis starts from the premise that women's life priorities simply are different from men's -- and that, when it comes to choosing work or home, the majority of women who are mothers will gladly walk away from professional success in order to have more time with family. In order for them to do so, Basham provides a recipe for financial independence -- using their skills and talents in support of advancing their husband's professional careers and objectives. Basham supports her thesis with hard data, articulating her realization that her position would provoke consternation in a great number of readers. The data itself may be the most insightful part of the book -- and underlines the fact that women today can find lifestyle models for nearly any conglomeration of work and home that they choose.

This review provided by the brilliant women at founders Marguerite Dorn, Esq. and Carol O'Day, Esq. Check out their site and book them for a talk at your next PTA, staff meeting, or women's support group meeting. They offer speaking, training, consulting and mentoring.



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