I’m a sucker for books about plucky young women trying to make it in New York and in that sub-genre Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything is a must-read. Jaffe follows a group of women in the early 1950s who are all at the start of their professional careers and working at a second-rate publishing company in Manhattan. Though all around the same age the ladies are at vastly different stages of their lives, with differing goals and visions of success. Some want to make it in the male-dominated business world, some want to get married and leave office life behind as soon as possible, and some just don’t know what they want.
Jaffe spends the most time with Caroline Bender. She’s a Radcliffe grad coming off a broken engagement she’s having a hard time getting over. Caroline starts out as the secretary to one of the few female executives at Fabian Publishing before impressing her superiors enough to slowly move up the ladder. Along the way she has to deal with lecherous male bosses and the jealousy of Miss Farrow, her former boss who’s determined to guard her turf.
Caroline’s roommate Gregg Adams doesn’t last too long at the office. Her acting career takes off after she starts seeing a hot-shot Broadway producer romantically. She’s driven crazy though by his cool, non-committal attitude toward their relationship.
Caroline’s best friend April Morrison also has a tumultuous romantic life. A naive girl from Colorado new to the big city, April is swept up in what she thinks is a whirlwind romance with a trust fund kid. The reader sees all the warning signs April can’t.
Mary Agnes Russo is a glimpse into what Caroline’s life could have been. She’s only working to save up some money for her wedding, and all she can talk about is what her life will be like when she’s married.
Barbara Lamont has already been married and divorced. She’s living a listless existence in a drab apartment with her mother and her daughter Hillary. Since her ex walked out on her she’s been sure that no man will ever want to marry her again. Her career is going very well but it’s cold comfort for her loneliness.
While perhaps ahead of its time at publication, there are aspects of The Best of Everything that don’t come across well in the present day. There is a sense that marriage is the best outcome and the only real fulfillment. Career success and other types of relationships pale in comparison.
Jaffe is unfortunately more timeless when it comes to illuminating the dangers and pitfalls of being a woman in a world run by men. Readers will cringe along with these women as the men in their life belittle their ambitions, make unwanted and aggressive advances, and treat them as second-class human beings.
An intricate look at the lives of a generation of women, The Best of Everything is of its time with relevance to all times.