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Review: Modern Girls, by Jennifer S. Brown
Penguin, 2016. 363 p. $15

There’s an old joke about how a wedding differs in the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jewish sects, which turns on who’s pregnant–the bride, the bride’s mother, or the rabbi. In the Orthodox case, it’s the bride and her mother.

Lower East Side tenements as they appeared in 2004 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Lower East Side tenements as they appeared in 2004 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

In Brown’s terrific debut novel, however, which depicts Orthodox life on New York’s Lower East Side in 1935, it’s no joke. Both Rose Krasinsky and her nineteen-year-old daughter, Dottie, are pregnant, and neither planned it nor wish it. Rose has four surviving children, having lost one to polio and others in miscarriages, Dottie being her eldest. Rose has spent her life caring for them and her husband, Ben–worn herself out, in fact, to the point that she hoped she’d changed her last diaper. More importantly, she wants, above all, to have the time to devote herself to causes she believes in, such as helping European Jews escape Hitler’s menace. Her brother’s one of them.

Meanwhile, Dottie dreams of escaping the Lower East Side and the shtetl mentality to which Rose was born. She has a good job at an uptown insurance firm and has just been promoted to head bookkeeper. She has a fiancé, Abe, a solid, stolid type. Trouble is, Dottie’s baby isn’t his–and he’s in no hurry to get married, even resists her attempts at seduction, on religious grounds. Sooner or later, though, he has to find out, and so does her mother.

From this intriguing premise, Brown derives a morality tale, a mother-daughter story, a romance that’s satisfyingly hard-edged, a cultural exploration for a young woman divided between two worlds, and a feminist argument that makes its point without a soapbox. It’s unusual to find a first novel with such breadth, especially one that doesn’t compromise reality to ease the pain.

I know something of the world Brown describes, because my paternal grandparents, like Rose, worked in a so-called needle trade (though their profession was making hats, not lace trimmings). The Krasinskys are Socialists, as my grandfather was; I remember seeing Karl Marx in Yiddish on his bookshelf, though I was too young to know what that meant. So the inflections, idioms, and ways of thought feel familiar, and Brown sets her scene well in Dottie’s narration:

The smells of home–the ever-present reek of liver, of schmaltz, of carp boiling on the stove–caused an uproar in my stomach, immediately deflating my mood, reminding me of my misfortunes. Always the smells permeated, overwhelming even the sweet scent of baking challah and roasting tzimmes. Ma never escaped them, but I went to great extremes before leaving the apartment to douse myself in the cheap toilet water I bought at Ohrbach’s so as not to bring the stink of the East Side into my Midtown office.

(Translations: Schmaltz, when not referring to intensely Romantic music or melodrama, is rendered chicken fat, the secret to tzimmes, carrots stewed with fruit. There are less arterially threatening ways of cooking this dish, but Rose wouldn’t have known them, and even if she did, she wouldn’t have changed her recipe. The phrase, Why are you making such a tzimmes?, meaning, “such a big deal,” derives from the length of time it takes to turn the carrots practically molten.)

The novel vividly captures the fear of arousing scandal (and how neighbors tune their ears to it), the casual anti-Semitism of Dottie’s coworkers, the ways in which men assume their superiority over women, how only their ideas or desires count. Despite these riches, however, I hear false notes. If Abe keeps Dottie at arm’s length for religious reasons, why is he willing to go to the theater on Friday night after the Shabbat candles have been lit? More importantly, though the author draws Rose as a full portrait, I think she’s too modern and flexible about certain matters. If you read Modern Girls–and I recommend that you do–you’ll know what I mean, even if you disagree with me. And in a rare foray into schmaltz, Brown’s depictions of a wealthy, assimilated Jewish couple seem over the top, straw villains unworthy of this novel.

But still, Modern Girls is a fine accomplishment.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.