Title: Modern Girls
Author: Jennifer S. Brown
Publisher: New American Library
Summary (from back of book): In 1935, Dottie Krasinsky is the epitome of the modern girl. A bookkeeper in Midtown Manhattan, Dottie steals kisses from her steady beau, meets her girlfriends for drinks, and eyes the latest fashions. Yet at heart, she is a dutiful daughter, living with her Yiddish-speaking parents on the Lower East Side. So when, after a single careless night, she finds herself in the family way by a charismatic but unsuitable man she is desperate: unwed, unsure, and running out of options. After the birth of five children – and twenty years as a housewife – Dottie’s immigrant mother, Rose, is itching to return to the social activism she embraced as a young woman. With strikes and breadlines at home and National Socialism rising in Europe, there is much more important work to do than cooking and cleaning. So when she realizes that she too is pregnant, she struggles to reconcile her longings with her faith. As mother and daughter wrestle with unthinkable choices, they are forced to confront their beliefs, the changing world, and the fact that their lives will never be the same…
Happy Fourth of July to all my fellow Americans! 🙂 I apologize to those of you who read this blog and don’t like historical fiction set in the first half of the 20th century, because that seems to be all I’ve been reading lately. Even if you aren’t a fan of historical fiction, however, I think you’ll find something to enjoy in Jennifer S. Brown’s debut novel, Modern Girls, because it’s just a really fantastic piece of fiction. Don’t let the summary deceive you: this book is so much more than a historical novel about a mother and daughter who happen to be pregnant at the same time. It’s a book about family, about immigration, about religion and tradition and responsibility. It’s about looking to the future while being proud of your past, about knowing where you came from even if you don’t quite understand where you’re going yet. It’s a book about growing up, a social commentary, and a reminder to live each day to the fullest. Perhaps more than anything, Modern Girls is a novel of second chances and new beginnings, no matter how old you are or what country you were born in.
As the summary above says, Modern Girls takes place in 1930s New York City and flips back and forth between two perspectives, the first being that of nineteen-year-old Dottie, and the second being that of her mother, Rose. I’m not always a huge lover of books that are told from more than one point of view, as a lot of the time I find myself starting to play favorites and rushing through all of the other characters’ perspectives, however I really loved the way Brown handles the dual-narrative structure of Modern Girls. From the very first pages, Dottie and Rose are given their own distinct voices and I never once found myself rushing through either of the two women’s perspectives.
Act normal, I told myself, picking up the next form. If need be, I could work by rote. Copy numbers from statement into ledger. Add the credits. Subtract the debits. My hands made the motions while my mind desperately sought to make reason. One night. That’s all it had been: one night. A fight between me and Abe. A night alone at Cold Spring. But then, I hadn’t exactly been alone, had I? If I had, I wouldn’t be haunted by that night.
Dottie Krasinsky is a modern girl through and through, or at least that’s the image she presents to the world. Between her job as a bookkeeper in Midtown Manhattan and dates with her boyfriend, Abe, Dottie keeps up with the latest fashions, reads all the latest magazines, and meets her girlfriends for drinks at various different restaurants. At the end of the day, however, she always returns home to her parents’ crowded apartment on the Lower East Side where, instead of Dottie the “modern girl,” she becomes Dottie the ever-devoted daughter, who speaks Yiddish and takes care of her younger siblings. This tension between modernity and tradition, between Midtown Manhattan and the Lower East Side, is the prevailing conflict of Dottie’s life and one that defines her decisions throughout the course of Modern Girls. When she finds out that she is pregnant after a careless night at Camp Eden with a handsome boy who is most definitely not her boyfriend, Dottie has an important decision to make, one that will determine whether she is the modern girl she claims to be or if she is more like her traditional mother than she cares to admit.
And as his horse moved forward, I realized that what takes just a moment in time can be stitched into an entire story that lasts a lifetime, can be tattooed and never forgotten. That one moment would stay with me across continents and oceans; through marriage and deaths; against the distance of decades, and that one moment is as real and current as the feel of my sweat on an August day or my son’s hand tugging on the bottom of my dress or a kiss from Ben under cover of the dark on a Shabbes night.
The other half of Modern Girls is told from the perspective of Rose Krasinsky, Dottie’s middle-aged mother. After twenty years as a housewife and giving birth to five children, Rose is ready to take her life back into her own hands and return to the social activism she was so fond of in her youth yet had to give up when the responsibilities of motherhood came calling. When Rose too finds out that she is pregnant again, her battle is almost the opposite of her daughter’s: is she as traditional as she claims to be, or has she become so modern and American that she will do anything to hang on to her freedom? In my opinion, Rose has the most interesting backstory of any character in this novel, as readers learn about Rose’s past as a politically active youth in Russia, about how she spoke no English when she was sent to America by her father with nothing but a few coins and an address, and about her laborious work as seamstress before she met her husband, Ben, and settled down to raise a family.
Overall, I highly enjoyed Modern Girls and thought it was a very well-structured, well-written piece of historical fiction. In particular, I really like the way you are able to see the differences in the repercussions of two women who are pregnant in two very different times of live: you have Dottie, who is young, unmarried, and has the prospect of college and a career ahead of her, and then you have Rose, who is older and has the security of marriage, but is reluctant to return to domestic duties when she is on the cusp of freedom. Brown succeeds in seamlessly touching upon a lot of important issues in a relatively short novel, ranging from immigration and the impact of WWII on the Jewish community both at home and abroad, to issues such as abortion and family pride. Plus, this book is full of strong, independent women, and I’m always up for a good bit of girl power. I highly recommend Modern Girls, and if this is just Brown’s debut, I can’t wait to see what other wonderful books she has in store for the future. 🙂
Many thanks to the author for sending me a copy of Modern Girls. You can find the link to Jennifer S. Brown’s website here.