The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

The Best of Everything has recently had a mini renaissance, due to apparently being featured on Mad Men; not that I would know about that as I seem to be the only person left who hasn’t seen it – I’m obviously too busy rewatching Downtown Abbey! Before I went to London a few weeks ago, I had breakfast with the lovely Jane Brocket, who was visiting New York for a few days. She told me to read The Best of Everything, as it was about girls in their twenties living in New York during the 1950s. I had seen it mentioned and had been meaning to read it, so I promised Jane I would get hold of it. Then, as book serendipity would have it, when I arrived dishevelled and sleep deprived at my mum’s after a night flight from New York and the general stress of lugging my suitcase around, my mum handed me a parcel that had just arrived. What was inside? Why, The Best of Everything, which I had won in a Penguin competition I had completely forgotten I had entered. So, I took the hint and began reading as soon as I’d finished The Heat of the Day. It’s a fantastic book, not necessarily because it’s brilliantly written or plotted, but because it’s so true. Never again will I feel bad about going on a date with a boy simply because I have run out of money for food and I know he’ll buy me dinner – according to Jaffe, everyone did it in the 1950s!

The novel centres around the lives of four girls; Caroline, April, Gregg and Barbara. Caroline and April work together at Fabian Publishing, Gregg is an actress who temps at Fabian between jobs and shares an apartment with Caroline, and Barbara is an editor at American Woman, a popular magazine, and lives in the apartment above April’s with her mother and baby daughter. All of the girls are in their very early twenties, college graduates and eager to get ahead in the world. Caroline, the most ambitious, is working hard towards becoming an editor. April, the most innocent, is desperate to find love. Gregg is a lost soul seeking something to give her life meaning. Barbara, devastated at being divorced by her husband at just 21, is working herself to the bone in order to provide for her daughter. None, apart from Caroline, are particularly interested in their jobs; their lives hinge around love, or the lack of it.

What keeps them going between terrible dates, unsuccessful love affairs, and broken hearts, are their friendships with one another. April and Gregg both run to Caroline to pour out their sorrows, and stoical Caroline keeps hers hidden away. They are all in the same boat; struggling to get ahead in a man’s world, where they are often treated unfairly and harrassed by lecherous male bosses; living in tiny apartments with no personal space; having to go on dates with men they have no interest in just to ensure they can eat dinner during the weeks when they have run out of money; feeling pangs of jealousy when yet another girl at work gets engaged, wondering when their time will come to find contentment.

Some of the things Jaffe describes so echo my own thoughts and experiences that it was rather unsettling to read at times. All of the girls at one point or another suffer with feelings of almost unbearable hopelessness; that their lives will never fulfil them, that they will never get out of the rut that they are in, and that they will never find love. They walk the streets of New York at night with nowhere in particular to go, unable to sleep or sit still with the thoughts that are swirling around inside their heads. They resent other girls, like Mary Agnes in Caroline and April’s office, who have their lives already planned; as boring as it might seem to be engaged and planning a solid, predictable future at 21, all of the girls, no matter how ambitious, crave that sense of security that a ring and a man to financially support them will bring. They go to parties and get drunk to numb the boredom of having to pretend they are having fun, when really they want to go home and cry into their pillows over how different from their dreams their lives have become.

It’s a very involving, and very powerful book, about the difficulties young women face as they move independently into the world. We are often told by older women that this is the time of our lives, that we should be enjoying ourselves, and not worrying about the future, but that only adds to the pressure many twentysomething women already feel. Like Gregg says, life can often feel like we’re playing the game of ‘isn’t this fun?’; going out on dates, staying out late every night, enjoying having no responsibilities; but really, a lot of us aren’t having much fun at all. Living from hand to mouth in grotty, tiny apartments, trying to work out what we want to do with our lives, and trying to find someone to spend our lives with, all while feeling that everyone else is having a far better time of it than we are, and that there’s something wrong with us because we feel miserable so much of the time.

As much as I identified with the emotional tribulations of the wonderful characters Jaffe portrays, I did ultimately feel uncomfortable with how much emphasis she places on the girls only being content when they have settled down with a man. Of those who do find men, they hardly let their engagement rings slip past their knuckles before they’ve handed in their resignations and have gone off into the sunset to be a housewife. I know this book was written in the 1950s, but I was expecting a bit more than that from such an intelligent and astute female as Jaffe. She seems to imply that the only real career for a woman that genuinely makes her happy is as a wife, and the only true career woman in the novel is a single and glamorous harlot who sleeps with her bosses and is nasty, vindictive and jealous towards the other girls in the office. Of course she is! It’s because she doesn’t really want to be at work, but at home in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant!

I had hoped for some kind of recognition that marriage is not a ticket to a blissful future, and that life for a woman does not begin on her wedding day, but The Best of Everything certainly portrays it as such, despite the fact that many girls don’t marry someone they love, but someone who is ‘nice’ and can provide for them. Is that all women are to aspire to? Is that all that women want? I hardly think so. It left me feeling somewhat angry, because of this reductive message at the end, but overall, I did thoroughly enjoy the novel and its highly perceptive insights into being a twenty something woman, and also of being a New Yorker. Oh, how I smiled with recognition as the girls headed to the cinema of a summer’s evening, just for the air conditioning! You’d never read that in a novel about life in London, that’s for sure! Despite my misgivings, I do highly recommend this;  a very realistic portrayal of what life still is like for young people struggling to make ends meet in New York, and has wonderful, well written characters who quickly endear themselves to the reader because they are so true. I’m so glad The Best of Everything is being given the opportunity to be read widely again, if only to show my fellow twenty something women that they are not alone.

59 comments

  1. I guess the author is just representing the attitude of the times where marriage was the ultimate goal for women and work/career/personal goals were just by the way.

  2. Oh, now I am personally fascinated! I read The Best of Everything as a young girl in the 1950s, because Rona Jaffe was a classmate of my literary aunt’s at Radcliffe, and my aunt was wildly jealous of her! She achieved the seemingly effortless bestselling success that eluded my aunt, and the only way my aunt could even stand thinking about her, in later years, was to say, disgruntledly, “Well, she never had children.” (Meaning: “So I’m equal to her in life after all.”) Apart from this bit of personal history, I am deeply fascinated by your reaction. I was the generation immediately after these girls, but still read the book from the viewpoint of a much earlier generation than yours. In Rona Jaffe’s day, getting the ring on your finger was everything, certainly in fiction, and largely in life too. In my day, just a decade later (but I graduated from high school in the 1960s, college in 1970), atttitudes were starting to change: city girls, at least, knew they were going to work, and were starting not to universally want a suburban housewife life. And I would expect no less than that you, from your generation’s viewpoint, would be horrified by the “catch a man” priority! Even so, some things remain the same. For people in their twenties, male and female, it is still the time when most are figuring out their careers, and thinking about finding a partner (if they want one.) I kind of think that my generation (1960s) is more like yours, than like the 1950s generation – that’s when the change happened. But there’s one more thing to keep in mind: for all her writing about Love, Rona Jaffe herself was a raging career woman, and something of an original.

    1. Diana, you always have the most interesting tales to tell! How amazing that your aunt was a classmate of Rona Jaffe’s! I think I would have been jealous too – being commissioned to write something like this at such a young age was incredible. Despite the emphasis on catching a man and the horrendously young marriages, you’re right in saying that the experience of being in your twenties hasn’t changed much now from what Jaffe describes. The fact that Rona Jaffe was a raging career woman was what surprised me about the way she chose to end the novel – Caroline’s fate is more ambiguous than the other girls’, granted, but her essential message that love is everything made me wonder whether she was writing what she believed or what she thought her readers wanted…or maybe she was simply stating the facts. I’m interested to read more by her.

  3. I’ve been wanting to buy this for a couple of months and you’ve sealed the deal for me, Rachel!

    Marriage as the be all and end all vexes me (and I still see it exhibited by some today) but I think Jaffe’s characters were very much products of their tIme even though she herself was challenging the status quo. It’s difficult not to weigh their decisions and ambitions against today’sstandards. However, if Jaffe had gone against the grain then she may not have been published or, she may have had as much controversy surrounding her as Mary McCarthy did for The Group in the early 50s.

    Ah, air-conditioned cinemas. I am mourning Florida and the refreshing air-conditioning in everything roofed.

    1. Claire, I know you’ll love this – it’s a racier version of The Group!

      What you say is very true – I think I sometimes expect too much of authors!!

      Air conditioning is currently the only reason I am ALIVE – fact. English girls and New York summers do not mix!

  4. Hy there
    my copy of The Magnificent Spinster arrived in the post just last week right to my front door here in the west of Ireland. It was a terrific surprise and I was absoloutley thrilled. Thanks so much. Love your blog and am following it religiously. Keep up the good work and many many thank yous. Its an unbelievable pleasure to have a book arrive free on your doorstep.

    1. Great, I’m glad it got there safely, Nora – thank you for letting me know! I hope you enjoy it and no need to thank me at all! Thank you very much – I’m so glad to have you reading!

  5. Marriage as the be all and end all is very annoying, although spinsterhood was much more of a stigma in the 1950s than it is now.
    Reading the review reminded me of Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (just out) – have you had a chance to read that?

  6. I was really interested to read your thoughts on this. I thought The Best of Everything was a great read because – as you say – there are aspects of it that still ring true to being a twenty-something. However, I have to confess, Caroline’s character made me feel a bit guilty about my lack of career focus: I work hard but it’s one aspect in my life. Caroline’s ambition, and the force with which she had to use to pursue her career made me realise how much I take for granted about my working life.

    Diana’s comment above was also fascinating. I read the blurb about Rona Jaffe and was immediately jealous of the fact she was basically asked to write this book – if only! I can sympathise with Diana’s aunt entirely.

    1. Hi Frances – how are things at the V&A? I miss it!

      Glad you enjoyed it – though I agree with you about Caroline – I am such a drifter and I wish I had a bit more ambition sometimes. I take it for granted that I have had an education and can work and the fact that the girls in The Best of Everything had to put up with sexual harassment and pathetic pay just in order to get a few rungs up the ladder is quite sobering. However I do think that not having the whole of your focus on a career is a very good thing – if our identity and sense of worth is solely in our jobs then what happens when we lose them? A rich life is made up of so much more than a job.

      I know – I wish someone would come up to me and ask that!

  7. I definitely want to read this. It sounds to me as if it was very much a source for Mad Men — there’s a character in that who is exactly like the career woman you describe, sleeping with the boss and bitchy to the girls but longing for a marriage and a baby. Time you started watching it I think — it is wonderful, and IMO streets ahead of Downton Abbey.

    1. Harriet I will – my roommate is obsessed with it and says I’ll love it, so as soon as I have some time I shall buy the DVDs and get watching! Perhaps after series 2 of Downton Abbey has finished and I am feeling bereft.

  8. The movie is also very good–in that elaborate fifties Technicolor way. It’s been a long time since I read this book or saw the movie, but I seem to remember that Joan Crawford plays the boss who leaves the job to (finally!) get married, but then comes back because she found marriage wasn’t all it was cracked up to be…or something of that nature. So perhaps a small subversive streak got entered into the screenplay (I don’t remember if her character was in the book).

    1. Ooh I shall have to try and track down that movie, Deb! Yes that character is in the book – I got the impression that she married in haste and soon regretted it, coming straight back to work after a couple of days!

  9. Haha, I’m not sure that ‘everyone did it in the 1950s’ is a great life motto! Yes, there were dinner dates but there was also rampant sexism and racism and other delightful prejudices and restrictions of that ilk. While I would love to this book to end with all of the girls sticking it to the man (literal and figurative) it would be unrealistic and anachronistic. You’ll just have to re-write a modern version for us!
    Also, I spent most of last winter huddled in the cinema trying to get warm. I watched a lot of bad films… x

    1. Well yes…I don’t think I’ll be using it as my general raison d’etre but for some things it’s a good line to pull out!😉 Well maybe I just will write that book, Chuck, and make it as revolutionary as I like! Oh dear…well, I would take the cold at the moment…the heat here is pretty unbearable! x

  10. I bought this for my sister after hearing good things about it, and my other sister has read it for her book group. I must get to it soon otherwise I’m going to be left out!

  11. Father Christmas left me a copy of the book last year which has been lingering in the to be read pile since. Not for much longer, thanks to this post. ( I know I read the author’s Class Reunion years ago but can’t for the life of me remember anything about it or whether I enjoyed it or not). As for Mad Men, I’m addicted. (Probably one reason the to be read pile is as high as it is).

    1. Oh Liz, you have got to get this off the TBR pile! It needs to be read – glad I have convinced you! I am going to get into Mad Men just as soon as I have time to properly allow myself to be addicted!

  12. Isn’t it interesting that the 50s, which are still relatively ‘recent’ in the timescale, are a world away in other respects? I’d like to read this to see if it is as fascinating as Mad Men. MM is an exaggeration but this book, as you say, should give a truer version of that bewildering time.

    Marriage seems to be like many other things: brilliant if it’s good and works out, hell if not. Boring if in between these two. I love being married but it took a failure before I got to the one I always call ‘my beautiful marriage’.

    1. I can’t believe it was only 60 years ago…very modern but also very disturbingly restricted at the same time. I must watch Mad Men to see what I think of it.

      Very true – I’m glad you managed to make a happy marriage🙂

  13. Your comments were very interesting, Rachel. Although I graduated university in the mid 1980’s, some of these expectations were still there as well as they are for you. I well remember going on a date as I knew there would be guaranteed food in it for me. (No dinner in the dorms on Sunday nights.) Looking back, I do feel rather guilty about this, although it was a survival technique at the time. :-}
    And yes, you have the twenties right for a lot of people (me included). I felt enormous pressure to “enjoy” those years, when actually, I was very poor, had no car, was in a crappy job, and having immigration difficulties. I wonder if a lot of people look back to that time of their life and admit to themselves that it really wasn’t that great. (Or perhaps I am off base here. Perhaps everyone else enjoyed their time?)
    Anyway, what I wanted to say was that the twenties are actually a tough decade, and you are not alone in how you may be feeling with that. Take heart – life seems to get a bit easier as you get older. (Or perhaps you don’t worry about things quite so much..)
    liz

    1. Thanks Liz – it’s always good to know that other people had the same experiences. From talking with my friends, it seems that we’ve all experienced the same troubles, but we do manage to have a lot of fun at the same time. I’ve heard that the thirties are a good decade, but I don’t want to start wishing my life away!

  14. I was so interested in what you had to say here, Rachel; sometimes I forget that women your age continue to experience this kind of stress and uncertainty, as of course I did, and probably my mother and grandmother before me. I think many people (not just women) spend their twenties acting on a mostly unarticulated hope that somehow they will find a way to recover the comfort and security of childhood (only, of course, THIS time it will come packaged with money and freedom!) This is perhaps particularly seductive to women, whose ambient culture works hard to infantilize them; it’s just so easy to look to a guy to give you emotional and financial security. But the truth is, success in life – at any age – is a question of creating many relationships – not just one “primary” one – and making as many contributions as you can to the community at large. In my twenties, I was lucky to find a job that was a perfect fit for me – and because I was happy in my work, I became weirdly attractive to men. That was a huge life lesson for me, that when you are genuinely happy, you stop focusing on yourself and people are drawn to you.

    I’ve read other reviews of this, but none had the personal quality of this one. I still haven’t read it – probably never will – but I really enjoyed your insights.

    1. Yes I think you’re right, Mumsy – we’re scrabbling around trying to find a way to recreate a comfortable, ‘safe’ life, but really that doesn’t exist, and coming to terms with that and being able to find happiness anyway is part of becoming an adult, I suppose. I completely agree with you about the making of many relationships – I am so blessed in my many friendships and I don’t know where I’d be without them. I just need to find that perfect job and then perhaps I’ll find myself inundated with men falling at my feet! Ha!

      Thanks Mumsy – I have it to Jenny and made her read it – I see she already has – so you should ask her for her thoughts as well!

  15. I read Class Reunion and its sequel when I was in high school. I remember enjoying both, but I don’t think I’ve touched Jaffe since. I’m curious what my adult self would think of her work. Perhaps I’ll give this one a go!

  16. I read this back in high school and have been thinking about reading it again. You really can’t beat books about New York in the 40s-60s. They just have such an aura of a certain style that is so satisfying to read.

    And I just watched all 7 episodes of Downton Abbey in about 26 hours…AMAZING. I am obsessed.

    1. PS—Jaffe has another one I also read in high school called The Room-Mating Season. It’s New York in the 60s, and I remember liking it, but again, I’ve been thinking about re-reading it. You should try that one next.

  17. When I was in high school one of my favorites was Jaffe’s “Class Reunion,” which is about four friends who go to Bryn Mawr in the 1950s. I also read “Mazes and Monsters” which is about four college friends who become obsessed with a game which is obviously Dungeons & Dragons. Apparently Tom Hanks starred in the TV movie version, which I find hilarious.

    And I am too busy watching the original Upstairs, Downstairs! I’m halfway through Season 4. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to watch it.

    1. I want to read Class Reunion, Karen – that sounds really good. Mazes and Monsters perhaps not quite my cup of tea!!

      Oh yes, the original series is very good – we used to watch it in school history lessons!!

  18. And now young women are told all they need is a successful career, and we see how hard it is to keep a marriage going. It seems that women never really ‘win’ and that makes me sad. If we stay home with kids we are thought to be unintelligent. If we put our kids in day care, we are thought to be bad mothers. If we put our home life first, we are thought to be boring. If we put our careers first, we are thought to be too ambitious. Sometimes it really, really gets to me. As always, an excellent, excellent piece of writing, Rachel.

    1. You’re exactly right, Nan – we can’t win. I think we just have to find our own ways and do whatever makes us happy without worrying so much about what other people think. Thank you, and thank you for your comments. Always so wise!

  19. Ugh, and I found it infuriating that the girls all assumed if a guy kissed them it meant they were getting married. Even Caroline! Even when the guy in question (YOU know) had already made it perfectly, perfectly clear that he had absolutely no interest whatsoever in marrying her, and still! Nevertheless! Over and over again! She would be like, “But darling? *sniff* You don’t want to marry me? But I made love with you!” Gag.

    I liked the girls. I just wished they would be pay attention to their other interests. I felt very disappointed in Caroline particularly, because she really liked her job! I mean April and Gregg were never all that into it, and Barbara was all sorted out, and I wanted Caroline to stick with the job and like her job and say screw you to the mean guys.

    1. I’m glad it made you angry too! I knew it would! I know – that was so infuriating. I wanted to yell at them – come on! Don’t be so blind! He couldn’t be running further from the aisle if he tried!!

      Caroline frustrated me too – she had so much career potential but really she was just doing it as a stop-gap like all the others, waiting to be swept off her feet by a man. I am glad she didn’t marry the boring one though. He was nice but SO boring.

  20. I’m about half-way through this and am finding it fascinating, yet horribly sad. These are the women of my grandma’s generation and it is interesting to read about the things that have changed for women over the years and the things that really haven’t. I am 37 and unmarried and admit that I have moments of absolute panic over it, though it is lessening as I get older. However, I feel that I’ve wasted many years hoping and striving for marriage prospects – years I could have devoted to other pursuits that would have advanced my career and creativity.
    I did pick this up because I saw it on a Mad Men reading list. If anyone is interested that list is here: http://www.nypl.org/blog/2010/09/13/mad-men-reading-list.

    1. Hi Anbolyn – yes, it’s very interesting to see how much things haven’t changed, isn’t it? Really a woman’s status is still judged by whether she’s married or not. And that makes me so sad – we still apparently need men to validate our existence. I’m sorry that you feel you’ve wasted time – I don’t think you really have. It’s not wrong to spend time hoping for things – if we didn’t have dreams, we wouldn’t be going anywhere, would we? Thanks for the link to that reading list – I am going to go and check it out!

  21. Rachel, I recommended Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk to you on the Cloisters thread, because it has scenes set there, but I also urgently recommend it on this thread, because it is intensely compelling middlebrow women’s fiction written at just about the same time (1955). It is about the quintessential New York Jewish girl of the day, will tell you
    everything you don’t already know about the New York 1950s social scene – and will complete your triumverate of Best of Everything and The Group!

  22. I also wanted to say that I liked Nan’s comment about not being able to win. It seems that something – society, other women, who knows exactly what – used to powerfully “tell” women they were failures if they didn’t get married and have children. Then things made a revolutionary change around 1960, and there were strong pressures to have a fabulous career – and if you failed at that, the implication was that you were nothing. Of course, the reality is that the majority of women have lives somewhere between the two, and neither “directive” is the sure road to happiness for everyone. It’s a conundrum that each individual has to work out in her own way.

    1. I entirely agree. It’s very tough trying to work out which is the right way to go and how I feel about a career and marriage etc and I do think this notion of ‘having it all’ doesn’t help either. Having it all isn’t possible – having a medium is more like it. It would be lovely if there wasn’t so much PRESSURE all the time to be this picture perfect woman with everything going for her – it makes you feel very inadequate. A conundrum indeed and I hope I will work out the right answer for me in time.

  23. Hi, just to say how much I enjoy your blog. I’ve listed it on my own blog http://rushhourwithtwins.net/
    I think you should be writing your own books (a non fiction book juxtaposing life as a twenty something today with literary lessons from the books you review so well?). Anyway you’ve led me to some great reads (One fine day for example) so thank you

    Mrs Rush Hour

    1. Hi Leonie, how lovely to hear from you! Thank you so much – I shall come over and have a look!
      Oh wow – what a compliment! I am actually thinking about doing just that and may have made a small start so we’ll see!
      I am so glad to hear that – One Fine Day is truly exquisite, isn’t it?

  24. Rachel, you’re certainly not the only one who hasn’t seen ‘Mad Men’! And I’m looking forward to Downton Abbey, series 2, as well!

    This book sounds interesting, though the reference on amazon to ‘Sex in the City’ puts me off a bit (another cult I haven’t joined…) I know what you mean about not liking the idea that marriage is the be-all-and-end-all, however, I’m hoping both my offspring will make happy marriages, purely because I want them both to find someone to love, be loved by and spend their lives with. And it doesn’t have to be actual marriages. ‘Living with’ would be fine! So I’m not so against the idea. But I’ll need to read the book and get more idea of their outlook and reasons.

    Have you come across ‘Slightly Foxed’? If not, I think you should seek it out! It’s a wee, three-monthly book of reviews of not-your-average-bookshop-bestsellers and is right up your street! Also, as I’ve been reading the reviews in my sample copy, I’ve been thinking, ‘Rachel could write this sort of thing!’ See what you think!🙂

    1. Penny my excitement for Downton grows with every passing day!

      Ignore the Sex and the City comparisons….totally not like that at all. I think the idea of having a partner in life rather than a blissful wedding day is what I would like to see toted more – so many women seem to just want their ‘special day’ and don’t give much thought to the afterwards part. That’s what I worry about. I would love to be loved and to truly love in return and I hope that does happen at some point but at the moment I am perfectly happy on my own and am not in any way tearing my hair out over the issue – I wish more novels had women like me in them!

      I have been to the bookshop and heard of their reviews but not read them. How sweet of you! You have such faith in me! I shall have to take a look, thank you!

  25. I’ve seend posters of this book all over London and didn’t realise it was actually first published in the 50s. I think I’d like to read it after reading The Group and I also have yet to watch Mad Men. You are not alone there!

    1. Yes, definitely a period piece and a great companion to The Group. Glad I’m not alone- the 50’s doesn’t hugely appeal to me – give me true period drama!

  26. I’m wondering if you’ve seen The Women (the original, wisecracking 1939 black and white version, not the supposedly-terrible 2008 one), as it seems to be sort of similar in terms of its focus, though a decade earlier – similar 20-somethings when they’ve married, got their money and status, then hit their 30s/40s and have to deal with traitorous husbands and slimy competition. It’s fun because there are no men shown onscreen, at all, at any time, though it does manage to get stuck in the same mire of men as the centre of everything. Check it out at any rate, if you have the time! here’s the imbd entry: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032143/

    1. No, I haven’t! Thanks for the recommendation – I will definitely check it out. I saw the more recent remake which I thought was terrible, so I’m glad to hear the original is much better!

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