Can a novel be both suspenseful and predictable? Less than half way through Jennifer S. Brown’s debut historical novel Modern Girls it’s easy to accurately predict the outcome of its central plot line, but readers will keep turning the pages to see how Brown will bring that about.
By then readers will also be emotionally invested in Rose and Dottie Krasinsky, the novel’s Yiddish speaking immigrant mother and American born adult daughter characters who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant and who share the first person narration in alternating chapters whose action occurs over two months from July to September 1935.
Rose’s diction, domestic arts, inner life, and Lower East Side apartment will make Jewish-American readers of a certain age mentally resurrect their Yiddish speaking immigrant grandmothers’ voices and apartments, especially their kitchens. This is especially impressive considering Brown is a millennial who probably never knew her Yiddish speaking great-grandparents and created Rose from a combination of research and imagination.
For Rose, whose four surviving children’s ages range from seven to nineteen (she lost one child to illness years before), the surprise pregnancy at age 42 is an inconvenience. Now that her youngest is in school she had hoped to return to the political activism of her young adulthood before her marriage to Ben, an automobile mechanic. Dottie’s pregnancy is a more pressing problem, because the father of her fetus is not her puritanical, unsophisticated shopkeepers’ son boyfriend Abe Rabinowitz but Willie Klein, a wealthy, urbane but unreliable playboy journalist; in 1935 abortion is illegal and unsafe.
Early in the novel Dottie, who earned the highest grades in math in her high school graduating class, can calculate figures like a savant, and is happiest when doing so, is promoted from bookkeeper to head bookkeeper at the midtown office of Dover Insurance Company, though her increased salary is smaller than it would have been had she been a man. Rose offers Dottie her life savings so she can study accounting in night classes at NYU, but now if Dottie can’t seduce Abe and convince him the child is his she’ll have to use the money to pay for an illegal abortion instead.
Thus the novel is not only a nostalgic portrait of an earlier era but a feminist reminder of how limited and circumscribed were women’s opportunities and choices just a few generations ago. It’s also a cautionary reminder of what we would return to should the religious right and their political allies reverse the rights of women to control their own bodies and pursue educational and vocational opportunities of their choice.
From a contemporary perspective the book’s title might seem ironic. Twenty-first century young women don’t have to worry about their sexual reputations, have access to contraception including abortion, and quite a few deliberately become pregnant out of wedlock. Nor do they have to travel to a vacation destination a two-hour train ride away to find sufficient privacy for a sexual liaison.
At home in her parents’ Manhattan two bedroom fifth floor walkup apartment on Tenth Street near Avenue A Dottie sleeps on the living room couch so that the bedrooms can be occupied by her parents and her three brothers. As an aside: The four room apartment—with a private bathroom, not a shared one in the hall—that faces the street but does not extend to the back of the building seems too large for the tenements in the neighborhood now referred to as the East Village but then considered part of the Lower East Side.
But by the standards of the time and compared to Rose’s childhood in the Ukraine they were indeed modern. Dottie meets her girlfriends for drinks after work and converses with them in English not the Yiddish they speak with their parents; they follow the latest fashions, attend the theater, go to the movies, date men and even vacation with them without chaperones, and even Rose’s aspirations are not limited to hearth and home.
The fictional Camp Eden, whose adult campers sleep in tents, where Dottie had her liaison with Willie and where she hopes to seduce Abe, is run by the Yiddish speaking socialist Farband and seems like a venue where the refined sophisticate Willie would be out of place unless he were slumming, trying to reconnect with his ethnic roots, or if he thought working class women were easy. But that’s a minor quibble.
Author Brown refers to the Farband as socialist, but the historical organization by that name was both socialist and Zionist. Let’s hope her decision to omit the organization’s Zionist character was not out of a fear of offending anti-Zionist sensibilities.
The final quarter of the novel is a bit anticlimactic, but the way Brown ties up the loose ends feels satisfying both emotionally and narratively. It may leave readers hoping for a sequel, one that skips the event filled war years except in flashbacks and instead jumps to post-war suburbia and changing gender roles, and though that ground has been tilled before perhaps someone of Brown’s generation might bring a new perspective.
Modern Girls’ simple, direct prose is accessible and notwithstanding its frank depiction of sexual desire traverses both the young adult and the adult historical fiction genres. Its suspenseful plot and warm emotional tone should appeal to a wide audience, one that would be wider still with the addition of a Yiddish glossary.