Smith’s second novel, originally published in 1948, returns to the author’s home territory, the tenements of pre-gentrified Brooklyn, with another young female protagonist trying to improve her life.
Margy Shannon’s ambitions are more modest than those found in Smith’s earlier, openly autobiographical classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. At 17, Margy has limited expectations beyond the life she’s known. Having left high school, she is relatively happy with her job as letter reader at a mail-order business. She’s made friends there and has a crush on her boss, kindly Mr. Prentiss, whose genteel mother’s manipulative domination stops him from acting on his attraction to Margy—in today’s workplace, to act would be considered harassment, but the novel makes Mr. Prentiss’ mother the villain. Margy lives at home with her own dominant mother, Flo, who is too emotionally stunted to show her love for Margy. Flo’s marriage with Margy’s “shoved around” father is fueled by mutual unhappiness; yet Margy dreams of marriage and children. She is thrilled when halfheartedly asked on a date by Frankie, a messenger for a Wall Street brokerage company. The product of yet another domineering mother, Frankie wants to escape his rough family and is looking for a “sensible,” unflashy girl. He pushes Margy to marry but proves uninterested in physical intimacy, at least with her, and has no desire for children. Margy’s Protestant friend Reenie follows a livelier, if riskier, path, carrying on an open affair with her Catholic boyfriend. When she gets pregnant, he marries her despite parental concerns. Meanwhile, pregnancy leads to a crisis in Margy’s marriage, and her future takes an unexpected turn. Reading Smith today means acknowledging the shadow of homophobia hanging over Frankie and the demonization of “dominant” mothers while appreciating the multidimensional, nuanced portrayals of the working-class characters and a version of feminism that applauds both work and motherhood as valid choices.
Gritty yet generous slice of early-20th-century American life.
Pub Date: today
Page Count: 336
Publisher: Harper Perennial/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020