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Merle

Merle

The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

The Best of Everything - Rona Jaffe

I enjoyed this book, which toes the line between worthwhile and trashy as it follows the lives of four young women who meet while working at a New York publishing house in 1952. But while it initially looks like a workplace drama, and the depiction of the workplace and the publishing business is fascinating, the book is soon swallowed by the characters’ relationship drama. It is soapy at times, and some readers will enjoy it on that level, following the romantic misadventures of young women desperate to marry. But then it can also be quite insightful about people, and critiques the idea that marriage should be a woman’s entire purpose in life. Except in the case of one dully conventional character, the more the young women here make their lives revolve around men, the harder they fall.

 

There is some variation in quality among the storylines. The book’s central character, Caroline Bender, has the most complex and nuanced plot, and is the character every reader will want to identify with – she’s smart, ambitious, self-aware, and a caring friend. The naïve, romantic April and needy aspiring actress Gregg are simpler foils for Caroline and display little common sense throughout the book (though that is perhaps not uncommon for their age – late teens and early twenties). It is difficult to say much about the fourth character, Barbara; though potentially interesting, we see little of her and she seems to be included primarily to represent the difficulties faced by a single mother looking for love.

 

The endings to these storylines are rather pat and sometimes melodramatic, except for Caroline’s, which is mostly confusing, though it can be interpreted as empowering. But there is a lot of good stuff along the way: a window into a setting that feels very authentic (as it should, since the author evidently wrote from her own experience), with enough detail to bring the time and place to life but without slowing down the story; immersive storylines with believable characters and a lot of good dialogue. It is always fun in older books – those that give a complete enough view of the characters’ lives to allow for it – to see how much has changed and how much hasn’t. I had a lot of fun reading this book, but am glad to live in a culture that has moved on from this all-encompassing obsession with marriage.