A Timeless Tale of Love and Motherhoodby Brie Stimson October 24, 2016
The novel “Modern Girls” is a historical fiction written with such sincerity that the pretense of history falls blissfully away. It is a mother-daughter tale so deep and so real hardly a woman will not see some of her own life reflected on the pages.
The title is a paradox – Dottie Krasinsky loves fashion, has career aspirations, and can’t resist going to the soda fountain with friends, but she goes home to her Orthodox Jewish family, old traditions and a mother who emmigrated from a land where animals still pull carts and children run through fields are never far away.
Dottie is a first generation New Yorker, a 19-year-old accountant who just got a raise and plans to marry her high school sweetheart.
When she comes to the harsh realization that her life won’t go as she had carefully planned, her mother Rose, who came to America seasick on a boat never to see her own parents again, is discovering that her own life may not be totally in her control either.
As Dottie and Rose’s paths intertwine, they discover just how much they have in common, even as modern times and a changing world divide them between old and new.
Rose, who embarrasses her daughter in public by wearing an old-fashioned Shabbos dress, struggles to place where she belongs in 1930s New York – an immigrant? An American? Both? She speaks only broken English, and then only rarely because she thinks it makers her sound “stupid.”
Rose was modern in her youth. Defiantly political, she still carries the injury (and pain) of being trampled by a horse when she stood up to the Russian czar’s army before she immigrated to America.
The novel weaves through two months in the latter part of 1935, just as Hitler is coming to power, Jews are struggling to leave Europe and U.S. visas are hard to come by in isolationist pre-World War II America. While the story focuses on the particular problems of Dottie and Rose (seen alternately through each woman’s point of view) the rise of the Third Reich and the precursors of war hang heavy on each character’s minds.
Dottie sees her mother as old-fashioned and Rose sees her daughter as naive, yet they share the deep bond that only a mother and daughter can truly understand. Their love is without bounds and shows itself charmingly throughout the book. Rose has been stashing money since she arrived in American a generation ago. She keeps her savings in a tin hidden in her underwear drawer. When Dottie needs ninety dollars and twenty-one cents to go to college and become an accountant, Rose pulls out the tin. Later in the book, when Rose is ill, Dottie stays constantly by her mother’s side and takes over her cooking duties.
The story, surprising and heartbreaking, keeps the reader guessing through each chapter, until the last word. At its core, “Modern Girls” is a story of feminism, of finding one’s way in a world ruled by men. It reads more like life than a novel – not always picture perfect, not always wrapped up with a bow. At one point, Rose walks through a strange neighborhood, and in her own succinct way defines what the author knows to be the indefinable title of “Modern Girls” – different and significant to every woman.
“Spotting the greenhorns was easy; they still dressed as if they were in the Old World. They weren’t acclimated as I was, with my modern style, wearing dresses that stopped at the knees, shirts that didn’t reach much past my elbows. My head was topped by a hat and not one of those ragged scarves worn back home. I stood a smidgen taller knowing I was a real American.”
“Modern Girls” is one of only two novels that will be showcased at this year’s Jewish Book Fair. Author Jennifer Brown will speak at Temple Solel on Nov. 3 at 2 p.m. Details and tickets at sdcjc.org/sdjbf.