Listening to MODERN GIRLS

I read MODERN GIRLS two months ago, thanks to an early review copy I tore through in about 48 hours. The book is — as I said in my Amazon review — a rich, complicated, often heartwrenching tale of two women living in the Jewish immigrant community of New York’s lower East Side in 1935 whose unwanted pregnancies expose exactly how far they are from being “modern girls.”

But what it’s also about, to me, is the painstaking journey women have made over the last century, each generation taking a few steps, our gender’s slow advancement a torch passed from mothers to daughters in the shadow of husbands and fathers and a patriarchal society that sought to extinguish it. The first of the Krasinski women described in MODERN GIRLS raised eleven children on a farm in Ukraine, trapped by her own fertility and unwilling to bind her daughter Rose to the life that had stifled her. When Rose gets in trouble for protesting the czar, her mother spends the money she’d squirreled away for decades to put her on a ship to America.

Rose lands in New York, where she continues her political activism until marriage and her own five children bind her to hearth and home. When her youngest begins school, she looks forward at last to resuming her intellectual life. Meanwhile her only daughter, 19-year-old Dottie, is a working girl with a job at an insurance company. She’s planning to marry her staid boyfriend, but wants to be a “modern girl” who continues to work even after the wedding. Rose offers Dottie her own nest egg to pay for accounting classes at New York University, giving her a chance to carry the next generation of Krasinsky women forward to even greater opportunity and prosperity.

Then both women find themselves accidentally pregnant. In the 1930s, birth control consisted of prayer and abortion was not just against every tenet of their conservative Jewish faith, it was illegal and life-threatening. To both Rose and Dottie, pregnancy narrows their worlds in an instant.

Jennifer S. Brown unflinchingly lays out the impossible choices mother and daughter face. There is no easy answer for either of them, and without giving anything away, I will tell you that the decisions they make will make you thankful for the time you live in. My own mother remembers coming of age in the years before the Pill, and how the availability of oral contraception and access to legal and safe abortion freed the women of her generation — just one generation removed from Dottie Krasinsky — from the exhausting cycle of reproduction. Yet she still couldn’t get credit in her own name, faced blatant discrimination in the workplace, and was expected, once married, to stop working and be a “homemaker.”

My generation continued the fight. I graduated from law school in a time when only three in ten law students were women and all but two of the fifty partners in the law firm I joined were men. My peers and I faced resistance at every turn, and sometimes we had to choose between professional success and married life, but we pushed our way into upper management in ever greater numbers, bought our own houses, and even — if we wished it — had children on our own.

Now, as my eighteen-year-old daughter readies her assault on the world, I give the torch to her. She has complete control over her reproductive choices, and will fight to make sure she keeps them. She will face obstacles in the working world, but they are far less than the ones I faced. She even has the chance to vote for a woman to head a major party ticket in the campaign for President — something my mother never thought she’d live to see. The fact that she won’t vote for her — she’s a Sanders girl — is ironic, but perhaps speaks the loudest about how far we’ve come since Rose’s mother went to her Ukrainian grave.

Of course, not all women have the rights and opportunities my daughter has. Millions around the world live lives just as circumscribed by religious dogma and dictated by men as Rose’s mother’s was in the nineteenth century. But this much I know: the torch burns brighter with every hand that carries it. Its journey may be slow — too slow — but it isn’t over yet, not by a long shot.

These are the things that Jennifer’s book makes me think about. I mentioned in an earlier post that a good book, a great book, is one that adds something to the conversation that’s been going on since the first storytellers spun tales around campfires. MODERN GIRLS has much to say, and much worth hearing. Congratulations, Jennifer, on a moving and thought-provoking debut.

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 3 Comments

  1. Thanks Heather, looks like a month for Jennifer Brown and The Modern Girls to be celebrated…just read Holly’s interview with her. Definitely makes me want to read this book…very soon. Thanks for more intriguing information on this debut novel!

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