The Girls from Winnetka by Marcia Chellis

I was sent a nice email by a publicist last week with a list of interesting looking independently published books. Normally I  reply with a ‘thanks very much but I don’t really have time for reading review copies but I appreciate you asking’ sort of email, but this time, one title so caught my attention that I decided to adopt my new ‘New York’ philsophy of ‘why not?!’ and ask for it. This title was The Girls from Winnetka, and I am so glad I had the chance to read it, because it is a truly powerful book about five girls from suburban Chicago who went to High School in the 1950’s, and about their lives as women from those heady teenage days until the present. None have had extraordinary lives, but in their ordinariness, they encompass the changing times of the 20th and 21st centuries, the shift in women’s roles, and the challenges each of us face as we grow from childhood to adulthood, and work out what we want from our lives. I was enthralled and moved to tears in many places by these women’s stories, and left in awe of their strength, tenacity and courage.

The Girls grew up in an affluent suburb and went to New Trier High School, today one of the best in the US according to wikipedia, and alma mater of many a famous face. In the 1950’s, when the girls were in their late teens, life was not so very different as it is now for the average schoolgirl. Boy crazy, into the latest fashions, railing against the curfews and rules imposed by their strict parents, the girls spent their evenings with their hair in curlers to achieve the right ‘look’, and every Friday went on ‘date night’ with their clean cut boyfriends. Annie, Brooke, Barbie, Margo and Laura were all attractive, ambitious, and adventurous girls, but they could not escape the strict standards of the day. Despite their often very contemporary sounding school days, the standards and expectations imposed on them were very different from the ones I experienced at the same age. The girls were expected to study hard and go to college, but that college education was not supposed to get them into a good career. Instead, it was to fill time until they were ready to get married to their high school sweethearts, usually the June they finished college, and then they would retreat quietly into the home and become good wives and mothers, wanting nothing more than this.

Each of the girls resisted these expectations, but all ended up conforming to some extent to the standards imposed upon them. Annie tried to make it as a musical star, and had great success on Broadway, before giving it all up for a marriage that didn’t turn out to be the fairytale she had been taught to imagine. Margo wanted a career and an independent life, but she too had to give it all up when she fell in love and married, and had to surrender her dreams to those of her husband’s. Barbie, the pretty, innocent one, quickly married and became a mother, but life would change dramatically for her as the years went by, showing her that she had more strength and talent than she realised. Laura’s marriage turned out to be a disappointment, but her determination to live a fulfilling life led to her finding her true passion outside of the love she was always told would sustain her. Brooke’s life, a catalogue of attempts to find stability and happiness in marriages, became too painful for her to continue after 1980. All of the women found themselves living lives they had never imagined, using talents they never knew they had, hitting obstacles they never thought they would be able to climb over, and, without realising it, forged a path that was far from the uneventful course their parents had planned for them.

From a young age, the girls had been taught by their mothers that marriage and children were the ultimate prize and fulfilment for women, despite many of them having incredibly unhappy and stifling marriages themselves. This idealisation of romantic love and dependence on men led the girls to have unrealistic expectations of what marriage would bring them, and immense disappointment, confusion and pain when their marriages left many of them feeling lonely, unfulfilled, and wondering whether it had been worth giving up their youthful dreams for. This insistence that marriage would complete these women’s lives was proved very wrong as careers became an option for all of the girls in the latter half of the 20th century, and it was these careers, alongside their female friendships, and the raising of their children, that brought the girls the most happiness in their lives. Free to use their intelligence, to meet people outside of the narrow sphere of their hometowns and coffee morning friends, to spread their wings and express themselves as women rather than just wives and mothers, the feminist movement gave the girls the chance to shine on their own terms. In late middle age, reflecting on the lives they had lived, all of the girls were thankful that their generation had fought for the chance to give women greater control over their own destinies, and in awe at how they had blazed a trail that had taken them so much further than the narrow confines of the 1950’s feminine ideal.

I can’t tell you how much I loved reading this. It was like The Feminine Mystique told through real women’s lives, demonstrating just how right Betty Friedan was when she described the frustrations of women confined to the four walls of their home with only children for company all of their adult lives. All of the girls depict mothers who were unhappy in their lives, mere shadowy figures next to their husbands, whose lives were considered to be more important than their own. That they broke away from this fate, and found their own paths to fulfilment, despite the disappointments and painful experiences along the way, was incredibly moving, and very powerful. Their stories demonstrate just how important it is to not rely on others to define or complete us, as complete dependence on a romantic partner causes all of these women nothing but unhappiness. It is only when they learn to look to themselves rather than their husbands for the passion and excitement their lives lack that they become truly happy and able to appreciate the men they have married for who they are rather than who they are not.

Outside of the feminist angle, it is also very much a book about how we can choose to overcome the negative and destructive experiences that can so mar our lives, and forge meaningful and happy lives despite the pain we have been through. None of the girls has an easy ride, and all have their own private grief and suffering, but in sharing their stories, they express nothing but thanks for the lives they have been given, and hope and excitement for the future their children and grandchildren will enjoy. Love and friendship is what binds all of these women together, and that sense of love and companionship and a real zest for life, in all its ups and downs, is what shines through the pages. It was a wonderful, life affirming read, and just what I needed to remind me to savour every day, and have the courage to live the life I dream of.

The publisher actually sent me two copies of this book; one is already spoken for, but the other is itching to be sent to a reader of this blog…please do say in the comments if you’d like it and I’ll do a draw at some point next week. I am currently experiencing rather straitened financial circumstances so I’m afraid it will have to be US only this time, sorry to everyone else outside of the US!

42 comments

  1. Sounds excellent Rachel – I always enjoy reading stories about women growing up and becoming themselves in another era. As well as being fascinating (I always end up identifying, or at least trying as hard as I can to do so) with at least one of the main characters, and really rooting for them.. it also makes you realise how lucky we are – and then I start to wonder what people will look back and think about the era we grew up in. This also sounds somewhat reminiscent of The Women’s Room, a feminist classic and a very good book to boot. Highly suitable for your Reading America project if you fancy more a bit more feminism!

    1. It really is a riveting book, and I did feel very close to the women by the end. I too often wander what will define our generation and whether we will look back and see ourselves as having achieved anything particularly profound. The Women’s Room is a book that’s been on my radar for a while – I hope to have time to pick it up sometime soon, thanks for reminding me of it!

      1. I was in the same class at New Trier (’57) as the author and the women she rights about, though I don’t remember any of them. (New Trier was and is an enormous school.) A classmate told me about the book a few years ago, but I wasn’t interested in reading it then because my memories of New Trier aren’t particularly happy ones. But being a little bored yesterday and harkening back to old times, I decided to download it from Kindle.

        I have finally read “The Girls from Winnetka”, and these are my impressions.

        I’m not crazy about the way the book’s written – it’s a sentimental jumble of five lives over a long time – but I’m glad I read it. New Trier was an extremely cliquish place, and these girls fit in and were happy there, at least as happy as teenagers can be. The book’s strength is its description of a time when manners and expectations were narrow and rigid and what happens when the vicissitudes of life conflict with those manners and expectations. (New Trier is perfectly exemplified for me by ’57’s yearbook pictures: cookie cutter images of well groomed teenagers, just about every girl wearing a single strand of pearls).

        The girls from Winnetka were raised in a protected and upper middle-class environment. Their mothers were housewives. (I remember my friend’s mothers only as vague presences. My mother, a Bostonian, didn’t like and wasn’t at all impressed by the North Shore. She thought the women there were nothing more than “glorified housewives.” She couldn’t wait to get back East. As for my friend’s fathers, I don’t even remember seeing any of them. Like my father, they all commuted into Chicago everyday.). So whether they wanted to or not, the girls expected to be married right after college, perhaps working as teachers or something like that for a few years until they had children, and then settling down in subordinate roles as housewives for the rest of their lives. But when does life turn out the way it’s supposed to?

        Judy, the smartest of the girls and the one with the brightest prospects, went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Smith, but was probably the unluckiest and least succesful of the five. Most of them went on to lead fairly ordinary lives. I don’t mean that in a critical way or to say they should have done more. They did what they could with what they had in a fast changing world, and for the most part they did fairly well. But the actuality, of course, is nothing they could have imagined when they were in a popular group at New Trier. The one thing that didn’t change is their friendship, which they managed to keep alive over many decades, and that’s another of the book’s strong points, one that women can appreciate.

        So if you’re a young woman who wants to know what life was like for your grandmother, or if you want to know whether being in a popular clique in high school is a precursor to success or means anything in later life, read this book.

  2. Just catching up with your recent posts.
    The above sounds rather fun.
    Do add me to your list.
    Loved your review of THe Magnificent Ambersons which I read some years ago.
    Yes, an excellent period piece and I can quite understand why Orson Welles. filmed it.
    It was a Barnes and Noble classic that I took to Morocco where it now resides –perhaps.
    My best read lately: The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal nonfiction.

    1. Hi Elizabeth, lovely to hear from you!
      Glad you enjoyed The Magnificent Ambersons as well – I am intrigued by the Orson Welles film and going to try and get it on DVD.
      I have heard many a good thing about the Edmund de Waal – I hope to get around to it some time!

  3. Stimulating review, Rachel. I look forward to reading this one day soon.

    I think that the ’50s were so repressive for women here. Their mothers were often the ones who kept the home fires burning during the war; worked in munitions and war plants, sometimes holding down several jobs, kept up the house or farms or whatever. A little book you might enjoy is Elizabeth Berg’s Dream When Your Feeling Blue, set in the ’40 in Chicago about a family, sisters, and their lives as their boyfriends, husbands go off to war. They are not as privileged as the Winnetka girls would have been and it is wartime and I think you would enjoy it – in between all the many other reads you have on your pile.

    1. I just know you will love it, Penny.

      Yes – it seems strange that these girls were brought up by women who had tasted freedom. Perhaps their unhappiness resulted in increased strictness towards their daughters. I love the sound of that book – I will certainly look out for it. Thank you for the recommendation!

  4. Would love to be added to the list! This sounds like something I would really enjoy.🙂 Thank you!

    p.s. Also thank you for your review, back in February (I think), of some or other book by Edith Wharton. I was inspired to try her out and she is now among my favorite authors.

    1. You are added, Jessie!

      You are so welcome – I’m delighted to hear that you found Edith Wharton! She is a fantastic writer and I’m so pleased that you enjoy her so much.🙂

  5. I’d love to read this. Please include my name in your draw. Sounds like a perfect one for the bookclub! Am really enjoying your venture into American lit this year.

  6. This sounds like a good read and your review was intriguing without giving away too many details. Like most women that I know we loved being wives and mothers, but that didn’t define who we were. That time of raising your children is a busy time of joys, challenges, frustrations, and sorrows but that time is so fleeting. It is over in a twinkle of an eye and if you have nothing else you are left with an emptiness. I am blessed to have had my career and my children and enjoyed and loved both. I truly enjoy your blog and thank Penny for sending me your way.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Janet. I think it’s fantastic that women are now free to express themselves and find fulfilment in so many different ways. I’m glad that you have had the best of both worlds – I hope for the same one day! Thank you so much – I am so glad you enjoy my writing, and it is a pleasure to have you as a reader.🙂

  7. Sounds like a good read. My mother remembers being in graduate school in the early 60’s and all the women in the neighborhood would send their kids over to play because “she was just sitting around and reading”.

    Please consider me for the second copy.

    PB

    1. What an interesting and revealing story! It just goes to show how restricted women’s lives used to be. Heaven forbid your mother should have wanted to be educated!

      I will certainly consider you for that second copy!

  8. I am intrigued by the book since I lived for several years in Evanston which is quite close to Winnetka! I had friends who actually went to New Trier, and a good friend’s wife used to teach there as well. So, please, put me in the drawing. Thanks!

      1. If I don’t win the draw I’ll definitely have to look for it — I’m so curious to read a book set in that area! I’ll let you know if I remember any of the places. I left Illinois in 1995 but I do miss it (except the winters and the traffic!)

  9. This sounds like a fantastic book. Thanks so much for this review. I have added it to my tbr pile :o) I’m based in the UK so can’t be entered in the draw, but good luck to all those based in the US. I hope that things get a bit better for you :o)

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the review and I’m only sorry I can’t offer it worldwide – being an intern makes life a bit tight in the financial area!😉 I hope you come across a copy soon and have as wonderful a reading experience with it as I did.🙂

  10. This looks like a great book. Thanks for the rec. I can’t be entered into the draw as I’m not in the US but I wanted to say that you have added to my TBR🙂

  11. Being a reader from the Chicago suburbs, I would love to read this book.

    Thanks for your blog- it brightens my day. I’m glad you are loving New York.

    Thanks,
    Julie

    1. Well I’m sure as you’tre from the area, this would be of extra interest to you, Julie! I will enter you in with a chance of winning!

      You are so kind, what a lovely thing to say. Thank you!

  12. How touching other women’s lives are when we read about their longing for ‘something more’. I used to think my mother wanted very much to be the perfect parent and to look just like the women on your cover. She didn’t manage due to illness but I have a wonderful sad memory of coming home from school and seeing the first page of a novel in a typewriter on the kitchen table, all among the laundry.

    I’ll try to read this one if I find it on-line. You always make me want to read everything!

    1. Yes, it does make me sad to think that so many women lived with regrets and unfulfilled dreams. What a touching story about your mother, Chrissy. It’s such a shame that she was unable to achieve what she wanted.

      I’m so sorry, I have a terrible habit of making other people spend money on books! I hope you manage to find a copy!

  13. I love reading about the 1950’s…You so pulled me in to wanting to read this with your awesome review…Please include me in the drawing. Thanks!

  14. You seem to pick the best feminist books. I like the idea of seeing a range of different kinds of lives, that still all have the one constant (being set unrealistic expectations about marriage).

    Also I can see you’re reading Age of Innocence and as a bit of a Waugh convert (The Buccaneers) I am so excited.

    1. I have a knack for it, Jodie! Yes, this really is an interesting book for seeing how women’s lives have changed over just one generation. I loved it.

      Yes! I love Wharton and I am so enjoying it already..I’ve put a hold on the DVD at the library so I can watch that afterwards too!

  15. I came across this book looking for something else and thought it sounded interesting as well. I added it to my list and am glad now to hear it is worth the read. I like this era and love reading about women’s lives.

  16. I am the author of The Girls from Winnetka. I just read your review and am blown away by your perception, sensitivity, and articulate critique. So right on. With appreciation,
    Marcia Chellis

    1. Thank you so much for commenting, Marcia! I’m so glad you enjoyed my review and thank you for writing such an excellent book. I so enjoyed it! It’s such a pleasure to receive a note from you.🙂

      1. Not only this author but also “the girls,” whose touching, heartfelt stories are in the book, are impressed with your keen insight into the essence of this book and your brilliant ability to express it in such thoughtful, elegant prose.
        Thank you for all you are doing for authors and readers.
        Marcia

  17. Dear Book Snob,

    Now that we’ve found you
    after you found us
    there’ll be no parting

    We’ll call this love.

    Thanks for the boost of The Girls from Winnetka!
    And, come see me in Brooklyn!

    Best, Laura

  18. What a wonderful opportunity to read all your reviews. It makes “UsGirls From Winnetka” feel good about the responses. As I have said “If we can touch just one person overcome their life challenges, the book was well worth sharing our lives!”

    Thanks, Barbie

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