Top positive review
5.0 out of 5 starsA stellar debut: mothers and daughters, the unique relationship that never changes
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on May 26, 2017
This immensely readable story is set in the immigrant Jewish community on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the mid-1930s. My first impression is Jennifer S. Brown's adept use of details, transporting me to time and place. She describes every aspect of life in a tiny flat, from the smell of baking bread, to the crowded living quarters, to the constant noise and commotion on the streets, to the clothing, and even to the distinctive odor of Aqua Velva. Rather overwhelming me with minutiae, she uses the smallest of details to enhance the storyline. What a special talent this is. Instead of finding myself bogged down by the intricacies of the setting, I can more easily place the characters into the story.
Jennifer Brown also skillfully weaves accurate historical details into the story. Hitler is on the rise in Europe, where violence against Jews is increasing. Jews are trying to escape to America, but a recently passed law reducing the yearly quota of Jews entering the United States has made leaving Europe more difficult (history repeating itself?). Unions are on the rise, and many immigrants belong to the Socialist party. Demonstrations, often violent, are commonplace.
It is in this setting that I meet Rose and Dottie Krazinsky. Rose is the traditional Old World Jewish wife and mother. Dottie, the eldest child, is a Modern Girl. Dottie, fashion-forward, leaves the Lower East Side each day for her job as a bookkeeper in Midtown Manhattan. Rose, on the other hand, rises before the sun to begin her unimaginable list of daily tasks. Just reading about one task, laundry for her large family, exhausts me! Note to self: never again complain about mixing colors and whites.
Rose is also a political activist. Amongst her daily chores, she attempts to expedite the immigration of a relative, assists those being evicted from their flats by crooked landlords, hands out pamphlets and attends demonstrations, despite her bad leg. For entertainment, she plays cards with women friends.
Dottie is engaged to Abe, and they socialize over drinks with friends at a local café. Until they save sufficient money, Abe refuses to get married. One weekend, she journeys to Camp Eden, a leisure spot outside the city (where one can rent a tent), and makes a life-altering mistake with gadabout, Willie Klein. In Dottie's words, "The mistake will be with me for six more months" after she realizes her plight.
At the same time, Rose learns that she is pregnant at age 42. Both women keep their secret until Dottie breaks down and tells her mother. Both women are frantic. Rose is worn to a frazzle caring for her large brood. Dottie will be shunned if she has a child out of wedlock.
In this context, the mother-daughter relationship evolves. For me, the story is timeless and is demonstrative of that unique bond. I thought of my mother as the story develops. What would she do? What would she say to me? What would I do?
Jennifer Brown seamlessly alternates chapters between Rose and Dottie. The characters are so richly developed that I cannot stop wondering what became of them after I read the last page.
MODERN GIRLS is much more than Women's Fiction. It is a meticulously researched history of an era and a story that mothers and daughters should share. I loved every word.