It was the cover of Joanna Scott’s Careers for Women that drew me to this book. The retro advertising art suggested a light bit of humor and sophistication that I expected to enjoy immensely. It began exactly as I expected, with a group of women mentored by their supervisor, the famed Lee Jaffe of the Port Authority, a story of the subtle wit of women navigating professional life in the oppressive working world of the Fifties and Sixties.
However, there is much more to the story than that. We have the careers for women at the Port Authority with Maggie Gleason, Lee Jaffe, and Pauline Moreau. We also have the story of Kay and Bob Whittaker. Kay’s career is the full-time housewife and mother, supporting her husband who truly does not deserve her support. There is the Robert Whittaker III and Brigid love story. There is also the story of Maggie and Sonia, Pauline’s daughter. There is the story of building the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, Lee Jaffe’s great dream. Then there is the story of perfidy and pollution poisoning the air in upstate New York near the Alumacore plant and all in just three hundred pages.
I will credit Joanna Scott with immense ambition. She packed a lot of stories into her book. She tackles important themes, corruption, environmental devastation and corporate malfeasance, anti-semitism, the challenges of developmental disabilities, sexual politics, infidelity, and misogyny. For me, though, it does not come together despite her considerable skill as a writer.
It’s strange. This is not a long book and it packs in a lot of stories and ideas, yet it still manages to overflow with unnecessary discursive interstices, overheard conversation, the chorus of construction workers, or the Emergency Action Plan, a ploy that bored me and made the book seem endless at times. It reminded me a bit of Shakespeare, who would add a conversation among a few people who show up for that conversation and are never seen again. They deliver some bit of information or an idea and go away. Shakespeare, though, has the sense to limit it to once or twice in a play. Scott throws this flotsam in all over the place. It became intrusive, irritating and I wanted to skip over them.
Scott is a skilled writer. I was drawn to her prose at times and sometimes it was magical. Her Maggie storyline was interesting and the first quarter of the book was fantastic. However, the “mystery” was not enough of a mystery and there was little suspense at all. The environmental storyline was overly dogmatic, its preachy lack of subtlety robbing it of emotional effect. People are contrary and when an author insists on telling us instead of showing us, we resist. Scott showed none of her narrative skill with that story, it was heavy-handed and obvious.
This was such a mixed bag of a novel. There were the parts I liked, the Maggie Gleason and Lee Jaffe story, even the Pauline story. The rest of it, meh.
I received a copy of Careers for Women from the publisher through NetGalley.