For Rose Krasinsky, worn out from raising five children, a new pregnancy at 42 means her hopes of increased involvement in Socialist activism (and for more time to help rescue her brother, trapped in Europe with his family) must be set aside in favor of more childcare and never-ending housework. And for her 19-year-old daughter, Dottie, finding herself pregnant after an unexpected one-night stand means the end to a promising bookkeeping career – and, most likely, to her future with her longtime boyfriend, Abe.
The author beautifully re-creates the vanished world of Yiddish-speaking immigrants in Depression-era America. (Rose’s husband, Ben/Beryl, shares his name and heritage with my own great-grandfather, which was an added treat; many other family names appeared in the story, too.) The Jewish tenements of 1930s New York are crowded, bustling places where cooking smells spill over into adjacent apartments, Rose’s kosher kitchen ensures her family is properly fed, and residents cart their bedding to their building’s rooftop on muggy summer nights.
Among others who share their background, these characters feel at home, but assimilation into mainstream society isn’t easy even for first-generation Americans. An intelligent career woman, Dottie may be a whiz with numbers, but her status as the only Jew in her workplace doesn’t make her popular with the other gals.
Those seeking insight into the day-to-day lives of women from the last century will find themselves fully involved in the agonizing struggles Rose and Dottie endure as they ponder their choices. Although both live in the modern era, in a modern city, the options for women with an unwanted pregnancy are limited, and it’s not a secret they can keep for very long.
Complicating matters for both is that neither understands the other’s reality. Sacrifices made by Rose, as a young woman in Russia, have shaped her character; she loves her daughter but sees Dottie’s life as luxurious in comparison. Likewise, Dottie can’t imagine that her strict mother could ever comprehend how her situation came about. Through the double narrative, readers can sympathize with both simultaneously. The way each woman handles her dilemma is not resolved predictably – another of the pleasures of reading this warmhearted yet realistic novel – but in looking back, their choices make perfect sense for who they are.
Modern Girls was published by NAL this week ($15.00/C$20.00, trade pb, 363pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy at my request.