Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown 

Modern Girls. Isn’t every generation modern when compared to the previous one? Isn’t this the goal? We move forward through hard work, education and often with the support of our family. 

The concept of what it means to be “modern”-of old world vs. new world customs- lies at the heart of Jennifer S. Brown’s debut novel. It looks at a mother/daughter relationship and how each is modern in her own eyes and reveals a history of sacrifice and love that made their lives possible.

 

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The story is told as a dual narrative alternating between Rose and her daughter, Dottie. Rose is a Russian-Jewish Immigrant who stood who up to the Czar’s Army and then fled to America to start a new life. She is now raising a family with her husband in New York’s Lower East Side, but longs to return to political activism.  Her daughter Dottie is 19 years old and just became head bookkeeper at work; she is smart- a whiz with numbers- and also has an eye for fashion. She has a boyfriend and is patiently waiting for him to propose. Both women consider themselves to be modern and they both have a problem: they are pregnant and don’t want to be.

Rose is ready to get her life back as her youngest is about to start heder.  Dottie is in the awkward position of having to explain that she is pregnant…and the father isn’t her boyfriend, Abe.  This story takes place in New York in 1935 when women had few choices available to them, but Rose and Dottie will make their own choices with the limited options available at that time.

The book deals with several issues: immigration, education, poverty, abortion and women’s rights, but at the center of the novel is a story that focuses on a mother/daughter relationship and the changes that take place in these two women as they both deal with their pregnancies and life’s unexpected changes.

For most of the story I liked Rose more than Dottie, but Dottie is young and finding her own way. I enjoyed the political conversations that took place and wished there were more of them. Rose’s story stresses the role religion played in her life and how it differed from the rest of her family. Her story also has more history and political discussion than Dottie’s and I found this more interesting. Throughout the book, Rose is worried about her brother, Yussel, who is stuck in Europe-Poland to be more precise – and can’t get a Visa to enter the US. She encourages her friends to write letters opposing The Johnson-Reed Act which put a quota on Jewish immigrants. This was a reminder that there were limits on the number of people who could come into the country. Although there were many who came to America to start new lives, there were many more who were turned away. Yussel, who is Jewish, is in Poland with his family in 1935. This is not good and we know from history that he has to get out of there ASAP!!  On a different political note, there is a memorable scene in the novel where Rose takes her youngest son to a political rally, when things start to heat up she realizes that she has to choose: political activism or motherhood. It was sad because there was a part of herself that she couldn’t fully express.  Rose’s story also cast a light on the Immigrant experience at the time. I enjoyed learning more about Rose’s childhood and saw how her extreme poverty led to her political convictions, but I also saw how her mother’s love gave her the freedom to escape to America and create a new life for herself. Her mother wanted more for Rose than she could have in Russia.

For most of the story Dottie just wasn’t as interesting. What was interesting was that Rose never taught Dottie to sew so she would never have to work with her hands. Rose wanted her to use her brain and sacrificed to make a way for her to go to college. Dottie was intelligent, and had a job in Manhattan as head bookkeeper, so she was already headed in a good direction. With the finances available, college would have been an option. However, given Dottie’s situation, she was advised to have an abortion. In 1935 this was illegal and the book provides a glimpse of the whispers, secrecy and medical problems that so many experienced. Dottie, however, wants to keep her baby and is desperately thinking of ways to get this accomplished. I came to really like and respect her as she tried everything she could to keep her baby. She ends up creating a new life for herself which made for an emotional read and at the end I couldn’t put the book down. 

This story is engaging and I enjoy dual narratives so this format worked well for me. This is more fiction than historical fiction, but it was the historical aspect that I found the most interesting. I would have enjoyed just reading about Rose’s story and getting a better look at her political activism in Russia, and then her experience in coming to America, raising a family and creating a life here. There is so much to Rose and her story that draws me in.

But again, it is the mother/daughter relationship between Rose and Dottie that lies at the heart of this story. It is an interesting story and if Jennifer S. Brown decides to writes a sequel, I will definitely pick it up!