The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It

Joanna Scutts
Liveright Publishing Corporation
November 14, 2017

"The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of WOmen to LIve Alone and Like It." Joanna Scutts, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018. Jacket design by Laywan Kwan.

When applied to a person today, “extra” tends to refer to over-the-top or dramatic. When Marjorie Hillis talked about being an “extra” (read: single) woman in the 1930s in her book Live Alone and Like It, it meant being superfluous. While reading Joanna Scutts’ The Extra Woman which covers Hillis’ life, influence, and books, I couldn’t help but feel that the second, more staid definition of “extra” was more applicable to the text. At first blush The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It seems exciting: Hillis, though once a minister’s daughter, became assistant editor of Vogue during the time it became the iconic fashion magazine it is known as today and perfectly epitomized the smart, single woman she explained in her books how to be. But Joanna Scutts, Hillis’ biographer, is a literary critic, cultural historian, and the inaugural Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History at the New York Historical Society and unfortunately her writing reads like it.

Granted, Scutts is thorough and informative and her sharp conclusions about historical American economic trends, the evolution of feminism and female independence in America, and its evolving cultures and morals are interesting, but she doesn’t have the same sparkling wit or charm that her subject, Hillis, does. Under Scutts’ pen it’s hard to get a sense of Hillis as anything more than the “extra woman” she espoused—she’s fabulous and fascinating, yes, but also aloof and somewhat two-dimensional. Scutts’ reader never seems to be able to get inside Hillis’ head, nor, unfortunately, inside the heads of any of the other women (and men) who influenced Hillis or carried on her legacy of sophisticated singledom or self-help books. What should be exciting tales of scandal, divorce, and other ups and downs of the unmarried women that Scutts discusses come across as a recital of facts. Particularly devoted Hillis fans or serious scholars on American feminism might find The Extra Woman useful, but most readers will probably find the work dull.

-Stephanie Tran

Manhattan Beach

Jennifer Egan
Scribner
October 3, 2017

Manhattan Beach Jennifer Egan Scribner October 3, 2017

Reading Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, you can envision the inevitable HBO miniseries springing from the waves fully formed, like Venus on her clamshell. You can imagine the lavish production budget recreating World War II-era New York City, our female lead (Emma Stone?) in her Rosie the Riveter overalls, and the smoky nightclubs where character actors do their best Bogart gangster impressions. The sequence where the USS Elizabeth Seaman sinks would earn a couple Emmy nods, for sure. Manhattan Beach is a very cinematic book, and fortunately it’s also a great one.

The book begins with failed stockbroker Eddie Kerrigan letting his preteen daughter Anna tag along while he visits the seaside home of gangster Dexter Styles. As she plays on the cold beach, Anna is oblivious to her father’s conversation with Styles, but it sets in motion events that will shape all three of their lives in very different ways. Years later, there’s a war on, Kerrigan has disappeared, and Anna is the first female diver for the Navy. When she encounters Dexter Styles again, she seeks to uncover the great mystery of her life, and it takes her to unforeseen depths.

Jennifer Egan’s first work of historical fiction, Manhattan Beach is a crisply written book, and an appealing (if slightly anachronistic) story of female empowerment. Setting it apart from other Great New York City Novels is the fact that it turns its gaze away from the sprawling metropolis to the ocean that surrounds it—the churning, mysterious sea that gives life, and also drowns it. Despite a third act development that feels borrowed from a far more conventional potboiler, Manhattan Beach is an engrossing, even hypnotic read; I could almost feel the chilled, salty breeze on my face. Now, HBO, when are you going to announce that miniseries?

-Kayleigh Hearn

A Line in the Dark

Malinda Lo
Dutton Books for Young Readers
October 17, 2017

A Line in the Dark, Malinda Lo, Dutton, 2017

Though the cover and copy of this book may lead you to believe it’s a thriller, it’s really more of a contemporary read with a twist. There is a mystery woven into the plot but the focus is on the relationship between Jess Wong and her best friend Angie Redmond. They’ve been best friends for years, but Jess wants more. Not wanting to ruin their friendship she’s kept her feelings for Angie hidden. But when Angie gets a new girlfriend, Margot, everything begins to change and none of their lives will ever be the same.

I am a big fan of Malinda Lo—her books are so inventive and they are always filled with a cast of diverse and queer characters and A Line in the Dark is no exception. Unlike her other books, however, this novel didn’t contain any fantasy elements or sci-fi experiments. It was a completely different genre and I was excited to see what she would do with it.

A Line in the Dark has a lot of strengths. It’s full of highly complex characters—something Malinda Lo excels at. And initially the pacing is well executed as the mystery takes some time to reveal itself, slowly drawing the reader into the twisted world Jess finds herself in. Not long after Angie starts dating Margot, Jess stumbles across a secret that Margot and her friend Ryan are hiding. And the next thing she knows, Ryan ends up dead and any one of the girls (including Jess) could be a suspect.

The ending of this book, on the other hand, felt rushed and unfinished. All the careful build up of suspense felt undone by the sudden conclusion. There’s also an unexpected POV shift from Jess’s first person narrative to an omniscient third person about two thirds of the way through the book which felt off. It disrupted the flow and I was never able to recover and lose myself in the mystery again. I still really admire Malinda Lo’s work but A Line in the Dark just didn’t work for me.

– Christa Seeley

See What I Have Done

Sarah Schmidt
Atlantic Monthly Press
August 1st, 2017

See What I Have Done Sarah Schmidt Atlantic Monthly Press August 1st, 2017

Like many people, my familiarity with the Lizzie Borden case stems from the jump rope rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

As I got older and learned more about the case, it continued to fascinate me. Especially the fact that an (all male) jury would find her not guilty just because they didn’t believe women were capable of committing such a crime. So when I first heard about Sarah Schmidt’s fictionalized retelling of the case I was immediately interested.

See What I Have Done starts out the morning of the murders, with Lizzie calling out to her maid, Bridget, after finding her father. The novel follows the case from there, splitting the account into four different perspectives – Lizzie, her older sister Emma, Bridget, and a mysterious stranger called Benjamin. For the first few chapters, I appreciated the rotating narrators as they allowed for some unique perspectives, but as the novel continued I found that there just wasn’t enough time given to each character. It felt like Schmidt only scratched the surface of their personalities without providing any real insights.

I also had a difficult time with Lizzie and Emma specifically because I found it hard to judge their ages as they both came across much more childlike than they actually were. Especially Lizzie. And as a result, when Lizzie was narrating, it caused a disconnect between the narrator and the actions she had performed. I never doubted that she did them but her motivations and actions after the fact didn’t ring true. In addition to being childish, I found Lizzie nasty, self-centred and downright unpleasant. Though I went into this book interested in her specifically she quickly became one of my least favourite characters. It didn’t take long for my curiosity to turn into impatience.

But my dislike for the sisters was nothing compared to my feelings towards Benjamin, the mysterious stranger. His chapters were some of the hardest to get through. He starts out as just a violent and distasteful man, but you soon find out he was hired by Emma and Lizzie’s Uncle John and for a while is presented as an alternative perpetrator of the crimes. His chapters could have been quite compelling but they also contained some of the more graphic descriptions (of vomit, of body parts, and of food for example) and it still makes my stomach turn to think about them. They weren’t violent, just particularly unpleasant.

I’m not sure if this book was supposed to make me question what I know about Lizzie Borden or what happened that fateful day but it didn’t succeed at either. It only left me annoyed and more than a little disgusted.

– Christa Seeley