Rona Jaffe’s debut novel was first published in the 1950s when she was just twenty-six. The driving force for her, thematically, was the wall of silence concerning the lives of women at work and going out into the world for the first time. Though she focuses on the publishing industry in New York, the scenarios within these pages could easily have occurred in most working environments and domestic dwellings around the globe. In Jaffe’s prologue she rightfully points out that,
‘Back then, people didn’t talk about not being a virgin. They didn’t talk about going out with married men. They didn’t talk about abortion. They didn’t talk about sexual harassment, which had no name in those days… I realized that these issues were part of their [women’s] lives too.’ (p.x).
Evidently a writer with a crusade, the beauty of Jaffe’s prose is that her characters are so well drawn that they don’t feel stereotypical. Each one reminds you of someone you know, from the girls who smugly announce their pregnancies and bore you with photos of their progeny, to the man who makes the world’s dullest blind date with his one-word answers. So many of the awkward scenarios depicted here are timeless and faithfully honest, even though Jaffe and her peers would have been expected to smile graciously and let such scenes wash over them, instead of criticising. It’s refreshingly frank as a novel, but also compelling in its plot twists. We come to know the main character, the unfortunately named Caroline Bender, as a career woman who is independent and showing distinctly feminist tendencies, yet she wavers at times and considers the ease with which she would give up her job if it meant she was reunited with her first love – ‘nothing happened to her during these three years, nothing of any import’ (p.399). It is depressing to read that such a headstrong woman, with a job she loves and a lifestyle that is all her own, cannot fully retain that as a married woman. We also see the country bumpkin April enjoying an unhappy sexual awakening whilst on the rebound, desperately seeking companionship through a haze of alcohol. Her life is changed forever by rejection and mistreatment, and we understand how she has fallen from grace rather than simply labelling her a ‘slut’, as many of her contemporaries would.
This is a book that is sincerely deserving of its reissued status, being just as relevant today as it was when it first hit the shelves. We still suffer the embarrassment of sexually inappropriate men in the workplace; we still squirm when family friends set us up on blind dates with utter bores; we still know women who have endured the trauma of unplanned pregnancies and abortion.
To close my review, I’d like to include some of the key quotes from this novel (without spoiling the plot). So many of the passages have stayed with me long after the first and second read, and I would thoroughly recommend it as a piece of pin-sharp social commentary.
Five of the best phrases in The Best of Everything:
‘I have to work like a man, fight for my job like a man, think like a man. I don’t want to be a man, I want to be a woman – and I know damn well I’m not a woman at all even in my better moments, I’m just a young girl with so many responsibilities it throws me into a state of shock.’ (Barbara, p.181).
Mary Agnes, a typist, on unmarried women in their late twenties: ‘Perhaps there’s something psychologically wrong with them.’ (p.229).
‘Girls always think, “I am going to be the exception,” Caroline thought; it’s a weakness of the species.’ (p.343).
‘I wonder what she has that I didn’t have… I’m going to find out’ (Gregg, p.374).
‘What is it you love so much that loving me doesn’t make any difference?’ (Caroline, p.423).
The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, is published by Penguin.