Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown. New American Library| April 5, 2016| 366 pages | $15.00| ISBN: 978-0-451-47712-5
It’s 1935. America’s coming out of the depression and Europe’s heading for WWII. Years before, Rose immigrated from Russia, met her husband Ben and they raised a large family—four sons and one daughter in the Jewish tenements on the East Side of Manhattan. She’s particularly close with her bright 19-year-old daughter Dottie who works as a bookkeeper at an insurance company and just earned a promotion. Dottie excels at math and her mom’s been saving money so that she can attend college. Rose notes: “In my dreams, Dottala went to a fancy college, a place where she could spend her entire day learning, immersing herself in books.” The delight with these characters is that they’re progressive and believe in women’s equality as much as possible in the 30s. Committed to the socialist party for years, Rose wants to return to activism since her children don’t need as much attention. She’s concerned about her brother trapped in Poland as Jewish persecution escalates. She needs to assist in the impending war as much as she possibly can. There’s also a Women’s Conference against the High Cost of Living with which she wishes to be involved. Rose also embraces her Jewish heritage and religion and keeps up with traditions like Shabbat dinner.
While Dottie dreams of marrying her strictly religious boyfriend Abe, she also plans to continue working. She thinks: “I knew I would have to take on the same tasks when Abe and I married, but I didn’t relish the idea. In my dreams, I kept working—either at his store, or perhaps, now, at the insurance office—and hired a girl to take care of the house. But those were fantasies.” Dottie’s new thinking might not mix that well with Abe’s old-school attitudes. When her mother tells her that she’s saved up money for her to attend college and study accounting the idea thrills her as she adores math and the increasing responsibilities in her work. Dottie explains: “How wonderful would it be to sit in a classroom, surrounded by numbers. Were there new numbers to learn? New worlds of calculations to discover?” A woman focused on gaining an education and concentrating on a career makes Dottie an intriguing character. She enjoys earning her own money. She helps her family and likes to keep up with the latest fashion and make-up.
Unfortunately, when both women become pregnant their future plans may suffer. The women must contemplate what’s important to them and make complicated decisions. At first Rose thinks that she might be going through menopause even though she’s only 42. Dottie realizes that her pregnancy resulted from a one night liaison with a wealthy and rather womanizing young man at a Jewish camp in upstate New York. She and her boyfriend of three years have yet to have sex. Abe remains religious, studying Judaism constantly, and intends to wait until marriage to have sex with Dottie. However Abe and Dottie have dated for three years and Abe doesn’t seem all that interested in marrying anytime soon. As Dottie just earned a promotion and isn’t pregnant with her boyfriend’s child, wants to attend college, her mother decides to take some of her savings to pay for an abortion.
Revisiting the past often connects us with the present in unexpected ways. In this debut novel, author Jennifer S. Brown, developed layered and complex characters. We learn the women’s personalities through present and past events. Brown makes Dottie and Rose women you could imagine getting together with for a cup of tea and a blend of conversation. Being younger and born in America, Dottie enjoys a bit of pop culture and trends but she’s also focused on a career. Rose remains partly in the old world while remaining active in her new environment. She’s making the best home and best life possible.
The novel focuses on a strong mother-daughter relationship. Brown incorporates historical details which strengthen the plot, setting and characters. For instance in a meeting Rose attends, she urges her comrades to write letters to their Senators to repeal 1924’s Johnson-Reed Act which instituted quotas on the number of Jews that could enter America. While Rose and Dottie don’t share every detail with each other they’ve developed a solid bond and care deeply about each others well-being. Mother and daughter respect and support each other. Despite the decade, the restrictions against women and standard domestic expectations, these women remain strong feminist characters. A sequel set 10 or 15 years on would be greatly welcomed. These characters must be followed up on. Clear your schedule and brew a pot of tea. Once you start this wonderful, detailed novel you’ll want to read straight through.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from New American Library.
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