Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown is a heart-wrenching read that you won't want to put down. Set in NYC just after World War I in the heart of the Jewish immigrant community, we find Rose and Dottie, mother and daughter, both faced with unplanned pregnancies and their long-awaited careers within their grasp.
Full disclosure...Jennifer is a long-time bloggy friend. When she asked if I wanted a copy to review, I jumped at the chance. While I use to read her blog on a regular basis, I was not prepared with her fiction writing to be so gripping. The scene where Rose realizes Dottie is pregnant made me cry on the train.
Modern Girls goes beyond two unplanned pregnancies. It is a story that touches on that tension inherent in immigrant families where the parent wants a child to "do better" than them. Rose proclaims, "A head bookkeeper? Wait until Lana hears about this. She was just bragging about her daughter's new sewing job the other day. Not my daughter! No manual labor for her." Rose also refused to teach Dottie to even sew in an effort to ensure Dottie works with her brain, not with her hands. How many children of immigrants and working class parents have heard that line?
The beauty of the novel comes from how the mother-daughter pair deal with their unplanned pregnancies. Brown beautifully writes their conflicted feelings on how to proceed.
"My life was about to take a sharp turn, and I'd never come down this path again...Before or after. I'd either be a wife with a home and a child or be a career gal with the ghost of what could have been."Despite the timing of this story and the decisions to be made, sex is never framed as bad. Even Rose spends time reminiscing about her long-lost love. In any other book, someone would feel bad about the sex that resulted in the situation the women find themselves, but Brown eschews any sexual guilt for our protagonists. That decision makes this book a truly feminist read.
I was a bit torn by the end of the novel. In fact I noted a point in the book where I thought would had been a fitting conclusion, but it was not to be. The remainder of the story helps to wrap up a few more plot lines, but when Rose and Dottie walk down the street is where I would have ended this tale.
Modern Girls is an exploration of the mother-daughter bond, the immigrant experience, what it means to be "a modern woman" and a reminder of a time when women's choices were severely limited, but they still tried to find a way to stay true to themselves.
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