Wednesday, August 17, 2016
A book that made me pause to think about reviewing: Modern Girls by Jennifer Brown
I haven't had to deal with this particular dilemma in quite a while because I've become so brutal about stopping and actually giving away books that don't work for me that almost no book gets a rating below 3 out of 5 stars, these days (at Goodreads) or a neutral or "not recommended" rating, here, but this book really made me pause. I was sucked in enough to finish the book -- I just didn't like where the author took me. I can't remember the last time I felt so dramatically conflicted about whether or not I should even write a review.
The photo above is a pun . . . on the thought of pausing before I decided whether or not to review. Pause, paws. I know it's bad.
I adore the cover of Modern Girls and it's very fitting because one of the two main characters is a young, working woman. Also, I'm a sucker for a red dress cover:
I wrestled with whether or not to even put the title in my subject line because I don't want to draw too much attention to a book that I gave a very low rating. The writing itself is not bad -- too detailed, perhaps, but it flows very well. The more I think about it, though, the more I believe the problem was a matter of expectation versus reality. When I agreed to review Modern Girls, I knew it was the story of two women dealing with unexpected pregnancies against a backdrop in which WWII is on the horizon. I did hope the WWII aspect would become prominent as the story progressed because WWII is my absolute favorite historical setting. However, by the time I got around to reading, I had pretty much convinced myself that Modern Girls was a WWII book -- even though I knew it began with the focus firmly on the two pregnancies because this reading was my second attempt.
*****SPOILER ALERT!!! Skip down to the END SPOILER line if you plan to read Modern Girls, soon!!! THERE ARE DEFINITELY SPOILERS*****
Here's the deal: Dottie and her mother Rose are both pregnant. Both pregnancies are unexpected. Dottie's pregnancy is absolutely going to disrupt her life permanently if she doesn't hurriedly marry or miscarry. She is very talented with numbers and has an excellent job but it's the 1930s, a time when women are expected to give up their positions when they're "in a family way" and a time when pregnancy before marriage is not only shameful but damaging to the entire family.
Rose, on the other hand, is 42 and well aware that she hasn't given her youngest child the attention he deserved, instead leaving that to Dottie. Rose has lived through a lot of pain. She's experienced at least one miscarriage (herein lay one writing problem: from one point in the book to another, it seemed like the number of miscarriages and/or pregnancies changed) and lost one of her twin boys. Can she deal with starting over again at her age?
About 1/3 of the way in, I really thought Modern Girls would be a good book for discussion because the concept of abortion is brought up and that's heavy territory. Some groups couldn't handle that divisive a topic but I do believe the book group I'm in would be able to discuss it (if a bit loudly) without everyone going home hating each other. In the 1930s, of course, abortion was not legal in the United States and that meant what we used to call "back alley" abortions -- which were costly and dangerous because there were no guaranteed safety standards in some random abortionist's illegal office or living room or . . . wherever abortion was done. Many Americans want to return to making abortion illegal, of course, and the fact that making abortion illegal doesn't make it simply go away makes the topic ripe for discussion, emotional though it is for both sides.
Several other things were happening in the book, by this point. Rose's brother is stuck in Poland and unable to get a visa. Dottie's boyfriend is a devout Jew (they're all Jewish; the difference is that he is more devout than some of the other characters) and she believes the only way to salvage her pregnancy is to seduce him but he's said he wants them both to wait till marriage. The father of Dottie's child has a decent job and comes from money but is a playboy. Meanwhile, everyone is into politics, so there are always discussions about what's happening in Europe going on. I thought the talk of politics, the brother stuck in Poland, and eventually the playboy father's decision to work in Paris (a Jew working in France in the 1930s certainly seemed like set-up for a deeper plot change) all hinted that at some point the wheel was going to turn, Dottie would end up in Paris -- probably working to save her uncle -- and there would be danger! Nothing is more exciting in a book than placing the characters' lives in danger, right? But, no.
****END SPOILERS!!!! It's safe to read, now!****
While I did not like where the book took me, I confess to making assumptions that others clearly have not. Modern Girls really is just what it seemed in the first 1/3 of the book. It's a story about two women of different generations dealing with the same dilemma: unwanted pregnancy. That's it. When only 1/4 of the book was left (I hope you like fractions; I'm really throwing in the fractions), I realized there was no way the book was going where I thought it was going to go. So, then I had myself convinced that it must be the first in a series and it was going to end on a cliffhanger.
Well, it ended in a way that didn't feel complete to me -- actually, at a point where I would have been happy for the book to begin -- but it wasn't until I began to read the author interview at the back of the book that I realized it was a stand-alone as I'd originally thought.
Neither recommended or not recommended but not for me - Modern Girls is a book many, many people have told me they loved and my low rating at Goodreads (2.5/5 - rounded up to three stars but mentioned as a 2.5 in the review) will not hurt the author. There are more positive reviews than negative. So, that's the main reason I felt a little wary of writing about the book at all. It works for a lot of people and I don't want to put off potential readers who might really enjoy the book. I think, though, that I'd have been happier knowing that the WWII aspect would never become dominant. If you like a dilemma about unwanted pregnancies but don't mind the WWII setting remaining a backdrop rather than a central issue, you'll be fine. It's more of a character-driven book than a plot-heavy book and I favor movement of plot over relationships, in general. Modern Girls just wasn't the book for me.
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