This has been on my TBR list since March of last year, which really isn’t far enough in the past for me to have forgotten almost entirely why I even added it to my list in the first place. I think I added it because Jo Walton recommended it somewhere1; I don’t recall anything beyond that, so I went into it a blank (but optimistic) slate.
As soon as I read the first paragraph I was hooked:
Not the place in which to look for the Great Adventure, the dingy, narrow office on the mezzanine floor of Hunter, Baxter & Hunter’s great wholesale drug establishment, in San Francisco city, at the beginning of the present century. Nothing could have seemed more monotonous, more grimy, less interesting, to the outsider’s eye at least, than life as it presented itself to the twelve women who were employed in bookkeeping there. Yet, being young, as they all were, each of these girls was an adventuress, in a quiet way, and each one dreamed bright dreams in the dreary place, and waited, as youth must wait, for fortune, or fame, or position, love or power, to evolve itself somehow from the dulness of her days, and give her the key that should open–and shut–the doors of Hunter, Baxter & Hunter’s offices to her forever.
The protagonist is Susan, a lower middle class woman living in San Francisco in the early 1900s. The book spans several years of her life, and it’s basically a slice of life kind of story. She falls in love at least three times, learns about the differences between the rich and poor, tries out several different jobs, and eventually discovers that the key to happiness is being in service to others (a big theme with the author, as it turns out).
I liked it! It’s super long, and it tends to repeat a few points a few too many times, but I liked it. It reminds me of some other early feminist books I’ve read. The closest comparison I think is something between To the Lighthouse and The Awakening, only without the experimental elements (or suicide). It discusses women’s lives frankly and introspectively, with lots of things about class, money, marriage, and romance mixed in. Susan goes through heaps of character development, mainly centered around learning to be okay with not having money and having to work for everything.
It’s funny and touching and utterly unlike anything I expected a pre-1930s romance to be. Susan almost becomes a married man’s mistress! A side character becomes pregnant out of wedlock and will probably have an abortion! There are at least two alcoholics and another one who’s a drug addict. One of Susan’s romantic partners is a unionist and maybe a communist.
I’m so used to reading old books where they gloss over emotions and tough situations and things like the effect money has on a someone’s personality, that actually reading about them in a popular author’s book is still surprising, somehow. I think that we’re more prudish about the past than the people who’re living in it were, tbh.
Read: January 22-24, 2015