How could a novel about young women working in New York six years after the end of the Second World War have any relevance to today’s 20-somethings in similar situations?
When the novel is Rona Jaffe’s The Best Of Everything (published 1958), the answer may surprise you. And what is even more surprising is that in many ways this book has more contemporary resonance than Sex And The City, its later, flashier, sister in the group-of-women-dealing-with-love and-work genre.
Jaffe’s novel focuses on four women who work at Fabian Publications in the Rockefeller Centre:
- Caroline, the savvy, smart, ambitious graduate escaping from a broken engagement.
- April, the country girl with an unerring eye for the wrong man.
- Gregg, the struggling actress who totally loses the plot when she is dumped.
- Barbara, the divorced mother of a young daughter, painfully aware that she is likely to be shouldering this responsibility by herself for ever.
The TV series Sex And The City turned Candace Bushnell’s collection of barbed, jittery pieces with their slight tang of Truman Capote and Jay McInerney into a glossy, entertaining and sometimes wearying exploration of relationships and sexual politics in the New York of the 1990s.
Season 1 of Sex And The City sets the format for what is to follow. Journalist Carrie Bradshaw uses her personal experiences and the lives of her friends to ponder issues such as can women have sex without emotion in the same way as men can; the difficulties of finding love and romance; commitment-phobes; relationships with younger men and married men; the implications of accepting gifts and money from men; the tension between despising and envying women who are married and have children.
In fact, just like our four friends from 40 years before the SATC television series hit the screens.
Rona Jaffe’s book was adapted into a film in 1959 featuring Joan Crawford and was also the basis of a daytime TV soap series in 1970 with 120 episodes but it’s the novel that has more layers than Sex And The City.
What gives The Best Of Everything its particular flavour and texture is the seamless way in which the complications of love and romance are interwoven with pitch-perfect observations and descriptions about the workplace and the social setting.
Not only are we plunged into the traumas of love affairs, dispiriting blind dates, backstreet abortion, married men who will never leave their wives, men who assume you will give up your job when you marry, loneliness, the desire for both security and independence, and other emotional experiences, but we are also given a full picture of the economic background and professional lives of these gutsy women coping with a pre-liberation world.
This is the recognisable world of the working woman. The novel’s opening describes them, hundreds and hundreds of them commuting every day, pouring into the city clutching bags, morning newspapers, their lunches in paper bags, some with their hair in pin-curls under headscarves, some smartly dressed, some in outdated clothes. Some work only because they need the money, others want successful careers, others are in a limbo waiting for love and marriage. If they live in the city they rent apartments like April’s, tiny and dingy.
In the sweltering, sticky New York summer they have to go out to find somewhere with air-conditioning to stay cool. They struggle to pay the rent, and their mum has to sub them now and again. They have to deal with lecherous bosses, like Fabian’s Mr Shalimar, who grope and intimidate. They try to assert themselves in the face of unchallenged male entitlement and privilege. Sounds familiar?
Little details pinpoint the differences between naive April and clued-up Caroline, who start work at Fabian Publications on the same day, and tell us a lot about what it takes to succeed in their world.
April turns up looking as if she rode in on the hay wagon from Hicksville, in her shiny baby blue gaberdine suit, straw handbag decorated with flowers, and white gloves with a hole in the finger. And although Caroline is charming and friendly to April, she has an instinct for self-protection and advancement which makes her eye April’s baby-blue garb and dreadful white felt hat, and swiftly suggest that they eat in the Automat, where no one who counts would see them, rather than at the more fashionable Sardi’s.
April realises right away that she’s got it wrong when she first sees Caroline, who looks just the ticket in her black suit with its raccoon collar and smart leather gloves. A spot of serious shopping puts this right, but lovely April lacks the nous to deal with either office politics or her clearly uncommitted boyfriend.
Caroline is a sharper cookie. She gets the hang of office politics, and understands that when her female boss hisses venom at her, it means she perceives Caroline as a threat.
Caroline recognises the undercurrents of office feelings, ‘the fears, the jealousies, the connivings and the secret panics’ which will be familiar to many of us. She negotiates a pay rise from Mr Shalimar — but she knows it isn’t enough. She’s got an expense account, though, and she’ll soon rake in more money.
She knows she has to keep on her toes and she experiences and acknowledges the moment you realise that you are no longer the chippy newcomer, and an ambitious youngster much like you were is snapping at your heels. This moment comes for Caroline a couple of years after she starts working at Fabian, and it comes for everyone, dear millennials, much more quickly than you think.
Caroline’s love life? Not so good — but in a surprisingly glitzy twist, she strides out at the end of the novel into the arms of Hollywood’s ‘most notorious bedroom athlete’. You’d like to know what happens next. In some ways, Caroline is a forerunner of The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick. She has a head, a heart, and a confident way with liquor. To get through a tedious date, Caroline has a cocktail at 5.15 followed by a Scotch and water, then another one. Then another. Then an after-dinner brandy, served in a large, lovely, double glass. Then another. Don Draper, seen reading The Best Of Everything in an episode of Mad Men, must have recognised a kindred spirit.
Although the four protagonists in Sex And The City work for a living, they seem to live in a protective bubble, untroubled by the mundanities of economics.
We have to accept that Carrie’s weekly column enables her to maintain a very nice and quite spacious city apartment, to dress in stylish, idiosyncratic designer clothes, to breakfast, brunch, lunch, wine and dine rather sumptuously, to take cabs everywhere and to buy — yes, shoes. In Series 1 she admits to having a substance abuse problem and needing regular fixes from Manolo Blahniks, Christian Louboutins and Jimmy Choos, often maxing out her credit card to buy them.
In The Best Of Everything, April gets into debt for more pragmatic reasons. She starts by buying a black jersey dress, an essential aid to upping her image at work. She then moves on to items such as a cashmere coat and a dark-green suit with a little mink collar, just right for her doomed attempt to impress her boyfriend’s mother.
April inhabits the real world of juggling cards and seeing your debts increase. To avoid another letter saying ‘We know you don’t want the embarrassment of having a bill collector come,’ April takes money from the boy she thinks she is going to marry. Caroline is shocked at this. What would she make of the scene where Carrie finds $1,000 in cash by her bed, a ‘gift’ from a wealthy one-night stand?
The world of Sex And The City is a dizzying round of glittering events, of clubs and restaurants and private viewings. It’s fantasy masquerading as reality.
This means that the moments which hit home have an unexpected poignancy, as in the episode where Carrie thinks she might be pregnant. And her question to Mr Big, ‘How come you never say I love you?’ echoes April’s words in The Best Of Everything: ‘Don’t you want to marry me? Ever?’ and Gregg’s plaintive ‘Don’t you love me?’
In Candace Bushnell’s collection, in the piece entitled Mr Big’s Away, Carrie describes the idea that will become Sex And The City: ‘It’s cute. It’s light,’ she says. ‘It’s not Tolstoy. I’m not trying to be Tolstoy.’
Bushnell observes: ‘But of course, she was.’
And that’s the problem. SATC’s quips and aphorisms offer a funny, slick commentary on life, love and sex which appears to be profound but is only as deep as the protagonists’ flawless skin. In spite of the life experiences which the characters experience throughout the whole series, the impression created by the first episodes is the lasting one.
Carrie is defined by clothes, shoes and Mr Big, Miranda by her career, Samantha by her liberated sex life and the one we can’t quite remember (sorry, Charlotte) is the traditional romantic. If you want real insight into the lives of real women you’ll be disappointed. But if you want a fun, sparkling confection with a bit of an edge, SATC delivers all the way to the bank.
The Best of Everything isn’t Tolstoy either. But it is an absorbing, enjoyable read exploring aspects of women’s lives which have enduring relevance. The writers of Mad Men recognised its cultural and social pertinency to the period; Lena Dunham, creator of Girls, included the novel on her list of required reading for the show’s writers. It’s nearly 60 years since these lines by Rona Jaffe were published, and they resonate today:
- (Work ) ‘They’re all college girls with good education and no experience and they’re willing to work for practically nothing’
- (Married men) ‘What good was a love affair that ended with the last train to the country, and Christmas presents that had to be given the day before Christmas because holidays were family times’
- (Sexism) ‘We’ll keep the women in the kitchen and in the typing pool where they belong’
On the nail, and not a Manolo in sight. Although Caroline does refer to her new shoes, dark gray calf, very classy…