It is New York City in 1935. On the lower east side lives Rose and her daughter, Dottie, two Jewish women living what appear to be two very different lives. Rose is an immigrant, married with four children, Dottie being the eldest. Dottie is a career woman (as much as a young lady could be a career woman in 1935). She works as a book keeper for an insurance company and is about to be promoted to the head of her department and looks forward to attending college. She’s also being romanced by a nice young man named Abe.
As different as their lives seem, Rose and Dottie share a secret. They are both pregnant. And they aren’t exactly thrilled about the news. Now that she’s older and her children are nearly grown, Rose has a huge desire to get back into the activism that captivated her in her youth. Plus, her family is challenged enough with four children. Her childbearing days should be over.
As for Dottie? Well, for one thing, she is unmarried and Abe hasn’t put a “ring on it.” Oh, and there is the pesky fact that Abe is not the father. Dottie has been impregnated by a dastardly rake named Willie Klein, a fledgling journalist who wants to write stories about the turmoil that is taking over Europe, not settling down with a wife and a young mouth to feed.
Each chapter Dottie and Rose trade off, telling their stories in first person. We get their perspectives on their lives, their predicaments they face and the journeys they go through before they reach the final decisions that will shape their futures.
Dottie tries to find a reasonable solution to her unexpected pregnancy. She can’t tell Willie. He’d probably just run off, and besides, they’re not betrothed to each other. It was just one night…a night Dottie remembers was one of deep passion, which aroused an erotic awakening in her that she wonders if sweet Abe could ever muster if he could get past a few virtuous kisses and some chaste hugs.
Knowing she can’t keep her little secret a secret as her body blossoms with pregnancy, Dottie conjures up a plan to seduce Abe when they go on a week-end get away to a place called Camp Eden, a week-end that will rely on a bit of alcohol and a lot of seduction on Dottie’s part. She can’t face the idea of being a single mother to a bastard child. It would be a shandeh (Yiddish for shame or embarrassment to my fellow gentiles). As for abortion or adoption? Dottie also thinks of these two options, but they leave her feeling just as confused.
And then there are Dottie’s dreams for the future. Being a whiz at math, Dottie loves her job as a bookkeeper (despite a few sketchy co-workers) and desires a college education when often women didn’t even make it to high school (my maternal grandmother never did). But thanks to Rose, a college education might be a real option for Dottie…if only she wasn’t facing an unplanned pregnancy.
As for Rose, as much as she loves her family and arises to the challenges of making her small tenement apartment a home, which includes making the Friday evening meal, the shabbes, she knows there is so much out there. She hungers for the life she had when she was younger, the life that included embracing activism and social justice, especially when it comes to her fellow Jewish immigrants. But how can she embrace the passions of her youth if she has another child to take care of? What will she do?
Though Modern Girls starts a bit slow but once it gets going it is truly a compelling read. Dottie and Rose are two very engrossing characters facing huge choices at a time when women’s lives were so much more constricted than they are now. And yet at the same time, I found their options, dreams, fears, ideas and desires to very timely. Women, whether they be traditional “Roses” or contemporary “Dotties” face these enduring issues in 2016 (I’d like to know what they would think of the possibility of female president, which we might just get if Hillary Clinton gets elected and let’s not forget, Bernie Sanders, a Jewish man, also ran for president).
In the end, both Rose and Dottie make two very distinct decisions that are the best for the time and the predicaments they face. And instead of everything being wrapped up in a neat little bow, the reader is left hanging. How will Rose and Dottie’s lives turn out?
But Brown leaves us guessing, and that’s one of the reasons why I liked Modern Girls so much. It left the futures of both Dottie and Rose up to me, and I wished them nothing but happiness, but I also want a sequel to Modern Girls. Brown is a very talented writer, with a wonderful way of using both English and Yiddish, showing not telling the worlds Dottie and Rose exist, and making Dottie and Rose such multi-dimensional and captivating characters. It’s a great read and one that will inspire much conversation, and ideal pick if you belong to a book discussion group