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Joanna Scott: Careers for Women

It sounds like (as was undoubtedly the intention) one of those guides that were issued not too long ago, which recommended the usual careers for women: secretary, teacher, nurse. Indeed, that is one of the themes of the book. Maggie Gleason, the narrator, has come to New York from Cleveland in 1958 to find a job and a husband. She has found a job working for the New York Port Authority, specifically in the public relations department. The book, however, does not focus on Maggie but on two other women. The first is Lee K Jaffe, who really was the director of the public relations department of the New York Port Authority at that time and, of course, gives the lie to the idea that women were only capable of being secretaries, nurses and teachers. The second woman had (for a short while) one other job commonly held by women, not mentioned in the career guides, namely prostitute. She is Pauline Moreau. Like a lot of women who became prostitutes, she had fallen on hard times, an illegitimate child, with health problems, fathered by a married man.

Pauline and Lee (and Maggie) first meet when Pauline is being arrested for prostitution. Lee intervenes and gives Pauline a card, offering her a job. Pauline comes to work for Lee and, to the disgust of Maggie and the other staff in the office, soon becomes Lee’s golden girl. However, Maggie soon becomes close to Pauline, not least because Lee has asked her to take care of her and because of Pauline’s daughter, Sonia. Pauline sometimes brings Sonia to work – Sonia has both physical and mental issues, though is generally a happy and likeable girl – and Maggie takes to the girl.

We gradually pick up on Pauline’s past. At the same time, we follow another family, the Whittakers. Bob Whittaker is from a fairly poor family but, due to his accounting skills, has made a career for himself with an aluminium company, Alumacore. His career has been helped by his wife, Kay, who comes from a well-off and more influential family. Bob is able both to prepare books that are not entirely accurate and help with illegal price-fixing. He also has a young assistant, Pauline Moreau, who not only provides secretarial services but, with only a little bidding from Bob, sexual services. However, when she gets pregnant, she is paid off with what seems to her a very generous sum and she heads off to New York. The generous sum is soon spent and she gets a job as a typist for a photo agency. This leads to modelling which leads to nude modelling which leads to prostitution, which is where she was when we first meet her.

Pauline manages to come into some money, though she is not clear as to its source, perhaps a combination of a legacy from a relative and betting on horses. By now, both Pauline and Lee have left the Port Authority, though Lee’s big project – her twins, as she calls them – the twin towers of the World Trade Center, is under construction. When Pauline goes up to Saratoga to bet on the horses, she leaves Sonia with Maggie. One day, she does not come back. Maggie searches for her to no avail. She calls in the police who feel that she has just run away to escape her handicapped child, which Maggie does not accept. However, when Pauline does not reappear, Maggie adopts Sonia.

The Whittakers, meanwhile, have moved to Visby (a fictitious town, presumably named after the Swedish island) in upstate New York. There has been a price-fixing investigation and Alumacore think that it is best that Bob be moved out of the way. He is made managing director of the factory there, which manufactures aluminium. However, the factory causes considerable pollution, damaging both the local animals, from mudpuppies to cows, as well as the health of the inhabitants, particularly those downwind from the factory on the Mohawk reservation. Inevitably, Alumacore are able to cover this up. Meanwhile, Kay is miserable in this remote place and consoles herself with vodka and Valium, while worrying whether Bob is having an affair.

When I started reading this book, two things struck me. I felt that the title was likely to result in it being filed in the self-help section of book shops (and, perhaps, even libraries). The title is, of course, entirely ironic as, with the exception of Lee Jaffe, the main female characters end up as unhappy wives, mothers, prostitutes or in low-paid, fairly menial jobs. The second thing that struck me, as soon as I realised that Lee Jaffe was determined to build at first one building that would be the tallest building in the world and then two, was that this was going to be a 9/11 novel. if you have looked my list of 9/11 novels, you will have seen the quote from C Max Magee at the top of the page: I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel”. This may be an exaggeration but it has an element of truth in it. This is not a 9/11 novel, though 9/11 does occur a few pages from the end and not surprisingly plays a role in the story.

This novel, however, is not about terrorism or the effect on New York, the United States and the world of the 9/11 events, except for a very small section at the end. Above all, it is about some of the other things that are wrong with the United States (and which, of course, are far from being unique to the United States). The title and the main story make it clear that feminism is key to the novel and, in particular, how women are treated in the workplace. Women are given the lower-paid jobs. They are subject to both sexism and sexual abuse in the workplace. They are sometimes driven into prostitution. Outside the workplace they are subject to other constraints: Kay, married to a company man, who has no choice about going to Visby and ends up an alcoholic and drug addict and Pauline who has to make sacrifices as the mother of a handicapped child.

But it is not just about sexism. Anti-Semitism, corruption, extensive pollution on a Love Canal scale, covered up by the polluting company, bullying of small businesses (by the Port Authority to build the World Trade Center), exaggeration on a Trump-like scale (as used by Lee Jaffe to promote her various projects) and blatant lies by developers (independent engineers… had found they [the twin towers] would be safe even in the event of a collision with a large jet airliner traveling at 600 miles per hour) all find their way into this book.

Joanna Scott is one of the foremost US novelists writing today but, sadly does not get the attention she deserves. It may be because, unlike some authors, she does not write variations of the same novel over and over again but comes up with something new every time. Yes, she is a feminist but, surely, in this day of age, we should all be feminists. She always tell a good story. In this novel, the fate of Pauline is the main plot line, with the subsidiary plot lines being the construction and destruction of the twin towers and the effect of this on the main characters and the fate of Alumacore and the Whittakers. But her novels are about much more than the plot. As I have shown in the previous two paragraphs, she is here painting a portrait, a not all together happy portrait, of her country from the 1950s up to 11 September 2001 and this portrait and the plot lines make for a very effective novel which deserves to be read by anyone interested in a good story, and a first-class novel of ideas.

Publishing history

First published 2017 by Little, Brown