The current wave of ‘girls making it in the big city’ TV shows reminded me of all my favourite novels that are concerned with this theme, and how while some aspects of them feel hilariously anachronistic, others are depressingly familiar. To paraphrase one of the ultimate ‘bright lights, big city’ gals, I can’t help but wonder: how far have we really come?
For some reason, most of my favourites are set in New York. It’s probably one of the ultimate destinations for anyone seeking fame and fortune and always comes across well in fiction, like one of those annoying friends who always look really good in photos. Whether it’s playing a central role on screen in Annie Hall, Working Girl or Sex and the City, or in a novel like Marjorie Morningstar (another great example of the Working Girl novel), New York looks FIT.
How many romances have started or ended on the steps of Manhattan’s dignified brownstones, how many walks in Central Park have resulted in some life-changing moment of realisation (I can’t marry him! I’m going to get that job! I want to go home! Etc.) In the pages of my favourite Working Girl novels, friendships are forged over coffees in cafeterias, crucial outfits are purchased during hastily snatched lunch breaks, awkward dates are endured in sleazy bars and tiny apartments are lovingly, thrillingly furnished with second hand finds.
I will always identify with the central protagonist when they’ve arrived in a big city, fresh from the provinces with all their cherished dreams and ambitions as yet uncrushed. I’ll live through their reinvention from suburban innocent to battle-scarred urbanite, feeling every mistake, heartbreak and triumph as if it were my own. It doesn’t matter if the story is set in 1933 like Mary McCarthy’s seminal novel, The Group, the issues will still resonate with the modern-day reader: first love, sex, sexism, careers, financial difficulties, family problems – they’re all there.
So here’s my round up of the best Working Girl novels, with scarily pertinent story lines that should probably make us stop, think, and ask the nearest male colleague exactly what they’re being paid.
The Group, Mary McCarthy
Written in 1963 but set in 1933, Mary McCarthy’s autobiographical novel could have been a blueprint for Sex and the City. It follows the fortunes of eight Vassar girls in their post-graduation, Manhattan life, which includes pretty much every single issue we’re dealing with today (including a darkly funny episode in which one of the characters gets fitted for a diaphragm). One of the characters, Norine, says “Our Vassar education made it tough for me to accept my womanly role” adding that because of her education, she is “crippled for life.” I’m hearing you sister. Oh and it’s namechecked in Mad Men.
The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe
Rona Jaffe's soapy 1958 classic has also popped up in Mad Men, smugly cosying up to Don Draper in bed (grrr...) and you can very easily make Peggy Olsen comparisons to the characters who are struggling to launch careers in the magazine and publishing industries while simultaneously batting off the advances of sleazy bosses. Most of the young women in the novel seem to view their careers as a 'waiting room' before they get married, but not all... And there's a disturbing (reassuring?) amount of lunchtime drinking. Fun bit of trivia: Rona Jaffe wrote for Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown, who is said to have inspired the character of Peggy in MM!
Manhattan When I Was Young, Mary Gantwell
Why are we endlessly fascinated by young women striving to make it in the fashion or magazine business? (See: Devil Wears Prada) Manhattan When I Was Young charts the fortunes of five friends working in publishing in the ‘50s, with beautiful descriptions of their lousy dates, crummy apartments and sleazy bosses. It’s brilliant. Mary Gantwell was a former writer and editor at Mademoiselle and Vogue and now writes for the New York Times, so it’s fair to say she knows what she’s talking about.
An Experiment in Love, Hilary Mantel
Let’s throw a London novel in there for fun! An Experiment in Love is one of Hilary Mantel’s earlier novels and I must be honest, I don’t really love it, but it does deal with all those Girl, Interrupted issues – eating disorders, living away from home, sex – in a rather bleak way. If you’re a glass half empty kinda gal, this is the read for you!
The Edible Woman, Margaret Attwood
The heroine’s ambivalence towards her engagement triggers a very strange eating disorder, as she struggles to assert herself as an individual with a distinct identity in the really rather sexist ‘60s.
Bachelor Girl, Betsy Israel
Bachelor Girl is Betsy Israel’s eminently readable study of the role of the single girl in society, and how ‘spinsters’ from Jane Eyre to Bridget Jones are perceived as a threat to mainstream society. Fascinating insights into the lives of the Bowery Girls in turn-of-the-century New York, Flappers and college girls with extracts from their diaries and letters.
How Did You Get This Number?, Sloane Crosley