By Miriam R. Kramer
New York City looms like a giant in the imagination of people in the United States and all over the world. Dirty and dazzling, it reigns as a culturally and financially vibrant city for strivers and immigrants, a metropolis allowing the ambitious to dream of conquest, fame, and success beyond the height of skyscrapers leaning vertiginously from above. People come to re-make themselves in a city where they can shift shape and bring their expectations to life. Simultaneously they feel the conflict between past identities and that fantastic future, either losing footing or gaining confidence by changing themselves along the way. Both Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown and Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell inhabit that mythological New York of the twentieth century, with conflicted characters who conceal or discard their past selves as they strive to create new ones.
Modern Girls, set in the 1930s, features Dottie Krasinsky, a nineteen-year-old bookkeeper who plans to work her way up at her firm in Midtown Manhattan until she gets married to her reliable beau, a grocer from the Lower East Side tenements. Dottie, a whiz with numbers, is torn between her work, where she is offered a promotion but not fully accepted by her colleagues for her Judaism, and her conservative upbringing in the small tenement apartment where she still lives with her parents. Her mother, Rose, keeps kosher and primarily speaks in Yiddish, keeping to Jewish customs despite her American life. As a first-generation Russian immigrant and former Socialist activist, she loves to talk politics, missing the work she gave up to raise three children with her husband. She desperately wants a life where she can help create better working conditions and support labor unions, renewing her passionate support for causes she espoused as an unmarried woman.
When Dottie gets pregnant by another man and her mother finds herself pregnant at 42, both must make choices about how their lives will proceed. They know they are living in changing times, and bustling Manhattan influences their subsequent metamorphoses. Modern Girls is an easy, compelling read with a page-turning story: one that reveals the continuing restrictions on women from their specific ethnic group, a conservative Jewish enclave holding on to cultural practices while resisting assimilation into the progressive aspects of New York. Featuring unexpected twists and insights, Brown’s book is bittersweet and thoughtful, an excellent choice for your bed stand or the beach.
Featuring more than a touch of Mad Men glamor and moral ambiguity, Rindell’s Three-Martini Lunch imagines the boundary-pushing New York publishing industry in the 1950s through three characters’ points of view. Cliff Nelson, a dilettante and aspiring Beat Generation writer, is the son of Roger Nelson, a publishing legend who makes book deals over booze-soaked lunches and constantly disapproves of Cliff and his pie-in-the-sky schemes. In Greenwich Village Cliff falls for Eden Katz. Eden, an enterprising young woman from Indiana, arrives in New York to make her mark as an editor in a publishing industry governed by an old boy network. Their acquaintance, Miles Tillman, an African-American writer from Harlem, wanders reservedly through their Greenwich Village get-togethers and bar crawls. Having graduated from Columbia, Miles decides to track down his father’s World War I and II diaries, which were left in an unidentified locker in San Francisco.
Rindell has produced an empathetic, genuine work that masterfully reveals the flaws, successes, and anguish of her characters in their own words. Cliff speaks a slang-ridden Beat-writer and Greenwich-Village vernacular while bouncing painfully from bar to bar with bohemian pals. In frustration he tries to obliterate his insecurities through drinking, boxing, and fighting to overcome his writer’s block, while constantly seeking the approval of his larger-than-life “Old Man.” After a first failure, Eden’s voice proclaims her quiet but steely ambition as she sheds Midwestern ways. She reluctantly changes her professional name, in part to avoid revealing a Jewish heritage that might cause agencies to blackball her. Smart and capable Miles thinks quietly, doing his best to fade into the background and become an Ellison-like invisible man for safety’s sake, pushing down truths about himself that he does not wish to recognize. He decides to find out who his dad, a World War I and II member of the 369th Regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters, truly was as a young man. In this way he wants to clear up a shady rumor from his father’s past, subconsciously connecting to his dead father while also defining himself away from the suffocating cocoon he inhabits in the spider web of his home and respectable girlfriend. By temporarily leaving Harlem and writing in San Francisco, he reluctantly recognizes himself as a closeted gay Black man, experiencing the mixed joy and self-directed anger that comes from finally following his passions.
Inevitably Cliff, Eden, and Miles betray others and betray themselves. Three-Martini Lunch reveals human failings we recognize. In particular we see our own tendencies to project our flaws onto others, and an inability to understand our subconscious motives in sabotaging others and ourselves out of self-loathing. These newly coined adults flail to find happiness in life and work, with New York the harsh, glittering backdrop for their outsized aspirations and wrenching failures.
In Three-Martini Lunch, Rindell writes so well that several parts of her story are elevated to literature, in particular a scene between Miles and his reclusive temporary employer. This novel reminded me somewhat of Donna Tartt’s chilling but poignant bestseller The Goldfinch, about a displaced New Yorker and a stolen painting that stands as a symbol for the loneliness and longing in art. It also brings to mind Claire Messud’s merciless and provocative work The Emperor’s Children, a novel set on the cusp of 9/11 about three friends’ missteps in attempting their own conquest of Gotham in their late twenties.
Yet Rindell’s Mid-Century Modern cautionary tale differs in tone from the latter. It stands as a more approachable work, steeped in the rapidly shifting sensibility of the Fifties’ literary output. She has written a compulsively readable and moving novel about the human condition, leaving us to interpret the reasons why we struggle with our identities for better or worse as we grow into our adult selves.