THE BEST OF EVERYTHING by Rona Jaffe
Rona Jaffe’s 1958 bestselling novel of career girls in New York City is a definite page turner. THE BEST OF EVERYTHING is juicy and filled with “I can’t believe she did that” moments, but also developed with enough acumen to create an intriguing and empathetic cast of characters. The now classic story covers a pivotal point in a woman’s life, the period of time when the dust of childhood begins to settle and one is ushered into adulthood. While this book is not something I would typically gravitate toward, I was drawn to the parallels with my own life: three or so years out of college graduation and beginning to find my place in the world.
THE BEST OF EVERYTHING follows the early adult lives of five women who find themselves working at the the fictional Fabian Publications, a large publisher whose body of work covers trashy magazines to paperback drugstore novels. First we meet is Caroline Bender, with whom I identified the most. Caroline is ambitious, overcoming youthful trepidation to act on her ambition to become a full-fledged editor. Yet at the same time, her personal life is haunted by her desire to find true love and settle into domesticity. At the climax of the novel Caroline is finally forced to reckon with the strong feelings she harbors for her college romance. Her decision not to ship off to Dallas to become his mistress sets off a series of chaotic moments in her life, but is also symbolic of her preservation of dignity. Her final moments in the novel are open-ended, and one hopes that she will usher in a new, more positive stage in her life.
There is also April Morrison, a Colorado hick who reinvents herself as a New York glamour girl. Friends with them both April and Caroline is Gregg Adams, a pseudo-bohemian actress whose tragic infatuation with a producer ultimately ruins her. Playing the role of the foil is the conventional Mary Agnes, a standard housewife-t0-be whose domestic ambition comes to fruition as the novel unfolds. Finally there is the admirable Barbara Lemont, a single mother whose ability to understand that the world abounds beyond her personal needs provides her with happiest of all the girls’ endings.
While I enjoyed discovering what became of these women, the novel has definite flaws. First, I did not particularly like some of the characters. Rona Jaffe may have been accurate in her portrayals of the pathetic April Morrison and Gregg Adams, but I found their desperate need for a particular man disturbing. Second, the simplistic writing style (and numerous typos) caused me to think more than once that THE BEST OF EVERYTHING is a poor man’s version of THE GROUP. When Mary McCarthy is clever and poignant Rona Jaffe is often conventional and bland. However, despite its deficiencies, I believed in the story that Jaffe told. I also have full confidence that it should, as the author proclaims in the novel’s preface, be considered a “sociological document” of the time.