Above: Jennifer S. Brown will appear at noon Friday, Nov. 11, in a program with literary critic Anjeli Enjeti and fellow author Ellen Feldman.
Spanning Aug. 16 to Sept. 12, 1935, the novel “Modern Girls” covers a pivotal month in the lives of Dottie and Rose Krasinsky.
The narrative rotates between the voice and perspective of Dottie, 19, a promising bookkeeper working in Midtown Manhattan, and Rose, her 40ish Jewish immigrant mother of four with a home on the Lower East Side of New York.
Jennifer S. Brown’s carefully timed work of historical fiction artfully weaves the stories of her characters against the backdrop of the Great Depression and barely emerging women’s rights in America (the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, passed in 1920) and National Socialism and the growing specter of Hitler’s rise to power in Europe.
In her debut novel, Brown wastes no space in providing significant information without seeming predictable or manipulative. While Dottie’s kosher sack lunch of a tongue sandwich her first day at the office may seem heavy-handed, the description of other details is not.
Mr. Dover, the principal of her insurance company, reveals prevalent attitudes when he offers Dottie a promotion, saying, “I recognize the superiority of your work, and I would like to offer you the position of head bookkeeper, but I’m afraid you will leave us soon to start a family.”
Dottie says she hopes he would consider retaining her even if she marries, to which he replies, “I’m afraid that would be up to your husband now, wouldn’t it?”
He doesn’t know the unmarried Dottie has just discovered she is pregnant.
In one revealing interchange two days later, a group of friends is discussing reporter Willie Klein’s insightful article, “The Nazi Movement in America.” Dottie’s boyfriend, Abe, says the Nazis “can’t be taken seriously” and “will prove to be no more than a German fad.”
With Dottie’s counter — “Abe, my uncle is trapped in Poland. The Jews in Europe are in trouble. The Nazi threat is real” — it seems that the match between the informed and intelligent Dottie and Abe is not as perfect as it initially appeared.
The issues get heavier as the days progress, and Dottie is caught between the comfort and familiarity of her reliable, traditional Jewish boyfriend and way of life and the pull of contemporary issues, the intriguing, barely observant and challenging reporter, a changing world, and the unraveling situation in Europe.
Conversely, Rose for years put family and tradition before her own needs and aspirations. Now, faced with her own pregnancy at a later stage in life, she is confronted with a life-altering decision and an opportunity to pursue a new course.
Through flashbacks and personal contemplations, Brown skillfully reveals the difficulties and dilemmas of being a woman in such tumultuous times. Both women come to terms with their ambitions and innermost desires as they weigh them against their choices and responsibilities.
In one amazing month we see mother and daughter become confidantes and friends, just as we witness their roles reversing, causing the reader to question who truly is the more modern of the two.
Brown concludes by bringing just enough loose ends together, while leaving plenty of possibilities going forward. Makes you wonder whether a sequel is in the works.