book review: The Boston Girl

boston girl

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant. Publisher: Scribner [December 9, 2014]. Fiction. Historical fiction. Hardcover. 256 pages.

RATING: 4.5/5*

This is the story of the education of Addie Baum. Jewish daughter to immigrant parents Addie grew up during the mid-1900s in a one-room tenement house in Boston. In telling Addie’s story, author Anita Diamant covers a lot of history: prohibition; 1920s flappers and artists; WWI; The Great Depression; illegal abortions, birth control and Margaret Sanger; the Spanish Flu; women’s education; women’s careers; journalism; civil rights. Like The Red Tent, Diamant depicts history through a feminist eye. Intelligent, resourceful and intellectually-curious Addie is a wonderful feminist character. I probably truly fell in love with this novel when Diamant mentioned Simmons College, my women’s college alma mater in Boston. At one point, Addie discusses her goal to attend college but that she fears many won’t accept her because she’s Jewish. [“There’s Simmons College,” I said. “They even accept the Irish if you can imagine.”]

It’s 1985 and Addie’s 22-year-old granddaughter asks her about how she figured out what to do with her life. At one point Addie admits: “It took me until I was almost forty before I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.” Addie begins her story in 1915 when she aspired to finish high school, attend college, have a career and marry an understanding man. Unfortunately Addie’s plans did not coincide with her parents’ notion for what a woman should do with her life. Addie has two older sisters, bad daughter Betty and good daughter Celia. 29-year-old Celia lives at home and works to support the family. Addie recalls: “I was only ten years old when my oldest sister, Betty, moved out of the house. I remember I was hiding under the table the day she left. Mameh was screaming how girls were supposed to live with their families until they got married and the only kind of woman who went on her own was a “kurveh.” That’s “whore” in Yiddish; I had to ask a kid at school what it means.”

As a teenager, Addie starts spending time at the settlement house in a library group called The Saturday Club, despite her mother’s protests. Young women attend lectures, take classes, pursued artistic endeavors and engaged in stimulating discussions. One of the instructors suggests she attend Rockport Lodge during the summer. [“Miss Chevalier explained that Rockport Lodge was an inn for young ladies in a seaside town north of Boston.”] There she makes lifelong friends including Filomena, Gussie—who later becomes a lawyer representing women– and Irene. She also remains close to Miss Chevalier who introduces her to other trailblazing women.

When Addie’s parents set their daughter Celia up to marry widower Nathan Levine, who owns a shirt factory, Addie must quit school and work to assist in family expenses. The Boston Girl delves into Addie’s work experiences. She ends up working as Levine’s secretary. He sends her to a typing class. While there she also takes Shakespeare which opens her interest in future education. She’s always taking a class and she’s a voracious reader. Although she appreciates the work, Addie wants to do more but doesn’t want to abandon her brother-in-law. Eventually she does take a position at The Boston Transcript where she transitions to some journalism. Later she takes a job at Simmons College where she works on her degree at night.

I love the scene where Addie’s superior at The Boston Transcript invites her over:

“It was a very exotic supper of things I’d never heard of: hummus, pita bread, olives with pits, and a kind of chopped salad. Katherine was pretty exotic herself: a Buddhist, a socialist, and a feminist. She graduated from Smith College, was a vegetarian, and did yoga. She was planning to visit all forty-eight states and had been to twelve so far, including New Mexico.”

Tragedy and adversity swirl around Addie. Her sister Celia commits suicide after years of stress. She couldn’t handle marital pressures and raising another man’s children [Levine has two sons]. Addie’s best friend Filomena attempts to terminate a pregnancy on her own. She nearly dies from it. Addie’s sister Betty later marries Levine. They complement each other nicely. After surviving The Great Depression due to Levine’s excellent investments, the Spanish Flu kills Betty and Levine’s newborn as well as Levine’s son. Diamant writes: “They lost two children in two days. How do you go on after that?” The couple perseveres and has another child.

Addie’s mother doesn’t appreciate her goals or her independent spirit. Then again how many mothers are 100% behind every one of their daughter’s actions? When the rest of the family moves to Roxbury, Addie moves into a boarding house for single women. She explains: “Mameh never let up: I read too many books, I had too many friends, I dressed like a floozy, it was selfish to waste money on movies, and I was an ingrate because I wouldn’t answer in Yiddish like Betty.”

Personally, Addie makes some mistakes in dating but eventually finds happiness. She meets a charming, progressive human rights attorney at a lecture at a friend’s home one night and instantly falls in love. Addie marries Aaron Metsky. They have two daughters. Aaron remains supportive for whatever Addie wants to do and she takes classes at Simmons College and becomes a social worker.

Spectacularly researched in its historical details and featuring a spunky, determined heroine, The Boston Girl is a must-read. I became completely engulfed in Addie’s journey. I didn’t want to put this novel down. I didn’t want it to end.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Simon and Schuster.

purchase at Amazon: The Boston Girl: A Novel

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