You start reading this book and you think: oh, how great it must’ve been to live in the 50s in New York. The glamour, the cocktail hour, the restaurants, the handsome men who drank scotch on the rocks. The glory days when the bosses sexually harassed their female employees because that’s what you did, the times when marriage was the only serious achievement any woman could or should aspire to, the times when every man felt he could patronise any woman… Ok, so maybe it wasn’t so great after all, unless of course you were a white man, ideally a well off one. Then the world was your oyster.
I couldn’t quite decide whether this was chick lit or not. It has been described as the ‘original Sex and the City’, ‘vintage chick lit’, etc. but is it really? It was written back when those labels didn’t exist yet; therefore the authors didn’t have to stick to any conventions as those conventions weren’t established. Every now and then the book would swerve into a typical romance territory and then suddenly surprise you with some excellent psychological insight. It should also be mentioned that it is shockingly (given it was published in 1958) sexually explicit.
As it is, I think it is best described as a sociological document of those times. It shows an array of problems and situations a woman could face back then and the solutions that were on offer at the time. ‘The Best of Everything’ tells a story of four young women who are trying to make a living in New York. There is a big difference in quality between those four plotlines. The stories of Gregg, April and Barbara are interesting enough but often they feel oversimplified and they are full of clichés and stereotypes. The story of Caroline, however, is in an entirely different league and it would probably be fair to assume that’s the most autobiographical of the characters. If all the supporting plotlines were cut out and we were only left with a maybe 200 page long Caroline story, the book would of course lose as a sociological document but would gain so much literarily. It could easily be mentioned in the same breath as Bell Jar.
I shouldn’t be too hard on the other girls, even when they came across as unbelievable naïve and emotionally simple. I had to remind myself that they were in their very early twenties and when I look back and read my diaries from when I was twenty one, I have to admit I was just as silly, dramatic and uncomplicated.
This book is a proof of the power of ‘Mad Men’. It was long out of print until one day Don Draper could be seen in one of the episodes reading it in his PJ’s. That alone was enough for Penguin to reissue it in their Modern Classics section. Being the nerd that I am, I actually read this book first. I looked at the blurb saying ‘as seen on Mad Men’ and wasn’t sure if I really want to try it. I was just recovering from watching eight seasons of House and was enjoying being TV-free. Eventually I succumbed. And ladies, let me tell you, Don Draper does put the sexy in sexism.