Friday 18 August 2017

How to have the best of everything

In season one of Mad Men, Don Draper lies in bed engrossed in a chick-lit book, The Best of Everything. It's a real book by the late author Rona Jaffe, who published the novel in 1958 when she was just 26. At the time, it caused a scandal, delving deep into the office affairs and shocking, murky consequences of young working girls in New York City.

I spent most of last week with my nose stuck in this fabulous book. Over 400 pages long and I still didn't want it to end. The story of five young girls, seeking their fortune in the bright lights of the biggest city of them all, is nothing new to us now, especially since Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City became a by-word for independent, sexually-liberated single women -- but at the time Jaffe's honest look inside the minds and lives of ordinary working women was completely fresh.

Caroline, April, Gregg, Barbara and Mary Agnes all work for Fabian publishers, a battleground of typing-pool shenanigans, ambitious back-stabbing and sexual advances that fans of Mad Men will recognise, right down to the office queen, Ms Farrow, who appears to be a prototype Joan.

But this was before Mad Men, before Sex and the City, even before Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl. Even though it was written 60 years ago, this book feels like it could have been written yesterday with its elegant skewering of office politics and romance.

Jaffe wrote about all the experiences working women had, and still have, "all the things nobody spoke about in polite company", such as going out with married men, abortion, sexual harassment and the isolation of living alone in a tiny apartment with no money.

Jaffe herself had been working as an associate editor in a publishing house in New York, just like her character Caroline, when she had the idea for The Best of Everything. She had met an LA producer who said he was looking for an updated version of the Ginger Rogers movie Kitty Foyle. Jaffe read the original Christopher Moyle book and came to the conclusion that the author didn't know a thing about women.

The Best of Everything was her answer to that, a real exposé of what women really wanted (and still want). It's a female coming-of-age story that takes in the darker side of becoming a woman, the loss of innocence, learning about relationships and life the hard way, the realisation that people do not always have your best interests at heart.

The world of female ambition, love and ageing has given us some of the most enjoyable books of the 20th Century, and films too. All About Eve is still one of the best comments on ambition, ageing, jealousy and female neurosis that I've ever seen.

The Best of Everything is in its way an ideal handbook, a cautionary tale on love and career.

Jaffe was surprised at the reaction from women who read her book. It inspired them to move to New York and work in publishing, just like the character Caroline, despite Jaffe thinking she had written a cautionary tale that would put women off doing exactly that.

However, as she conceded herself, "an exciting life, even if very difficult, is better than a dull one, even if it changes you forever". And that's as good a justification for the difficult shift into womanhood as any I've ever heard.

But it also reminds us why chick lit, at its best, is so enjoyable. It can offer hope and help you dream a little, while reminding you that not all stories have a happy ending.

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