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.