Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Book Review: Tomorrow Will Be Better

(Reclaimed from Blogjob, where it appeared with the following tags: 1920sethics of fictional charactersNew York Citynovels by womensocialist realismwomen’s fictionwomen’s history.)

Title: Tomorrow Will Be Better
Author: Betty Smith
Date: 1948
Publisher: Harper & Brothers
ISBN: none
Length: 274 pages
Quote: “With sighs of regret, Margy set aside the dream of marrying the boss.”
Instead, Margy married a boy who went to her school. But he wasn’t passionate. Possibly he was homosexual—he’s consciously obsessed with proving that he’s not—or perhaps, as he insists, he’s just not very sexual at all. So Margy, determined not to be like the older working-class women she knows who just passively wait for tomorrow to be better, picked up her old fantasy again. As a young office girl she’d been able to face the fact that the boss’s mother wouldn’t let him marry one of the office “help,” but as a frustrated wife she cherishes the hope that a divorcee will be more acceptable...for the boss to marry? Probably not to marry...
If you were a member of the book-buying class, in the early twentieth century, and you wanted to be moved to tears over the hopelessness of the working class’s plight, you might have enjoyed Tomorrow Will Be Better as a novel. If, on the other hand, you preferred to have your elitist prejudices reinforced, Smith didn’t make that too difficult. Even today I can hear Margy’s oldfashioned Noo Yawk accent in my mind’s ear and see her as a stupid little trollop, unaware of any possible happiness that might come from independent or creative work, endowed with all of the sensitivities of a commercial artist or novelist but none of the intelligence or fortitude thereof. It was easy for elitist bigots to say “They’re all like that.” For Southern elitist bigots, particularly, Margy was a perfect stereotype of what Northern women were supposed to be like: most of them might be luckier than Margy and therefore have more money, but they’d still be needy, greedy, soulless sexual predators underneath. (Of course, Smith was coasting on the success of an earlier novel about a nicer woman--also poor, also in New York.)
For me, the sad part is that Betty Smith didn’t seem to realize how repulsive she’d made her protagonist. Compared with Margy, Becky Sharp is lovable, Scarlett O’Hara is admirable, and even Dora Spenlow Copperfield acquires a certain charm...but Smith gives no hint of satire or detachment. Smith seemed to imagine that readers would identify with Margy. The mind boggles. Granted, early twentieth century audiences did seem to accept, if not expect, the sort of Realistic Art that plunked the raw potato on the table with all the dirt clinging to it. Granted, a lot of men like Margy’s husband went into “the arts” and were allowed to pontificate publicly about their low expectations of women. Nevertheless, women didn’t have to internalize that sort of garbage. Margaret Mitchell, Pearl S. BuckShirley JacksonAnn PetryMary O’Hara, and Rose Wilder Lane were selling novels about women who had character. So what was wrong with Smith?
Margy’s idea of “better” is materialistic: she wouldn’t know how to keep herself from abusing a child just as she was abused, how to cook better meals than she grew up eating, any more than she’d know how to continue her education, but she can imagine a bigger house with more expensive things in it. Children are among the household accessories she longs for. Her own mother and her husband’s mother are about as repulsive a pair of role models as can be imagined, and Margy has no idea where better role models might be found, but she na├»vely fantasizes that having babies would add to rather than subtracting from the quality of her life.
The book’s most appealing quality is its cultural history, its sense of time and place. Here are Buster Brown comic strips, trolleys, heated milk with Nabiscos, fish and chips for two for thirty cents, window-sill gardens...and less nostalgic things, too, like the “hospital” set up in the doctor’s house. If it’s hard to sympathize with Margy, it’s easy to visualize the shabbiness and emotional abusiveness with which she’s comfortable and the little luxuries she craves. So, if you want to spend some time in early-twentieth-century New York...Tomorrow Will Be Better won’t send you there in such good company as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn would offer, but you’ll hear the voices and taste the food (the book contains complete recipes). And you'll appreciate the place to which you return after reading.
Sometimes, in a desperate effort to move merchandise before looking up books on Amazon, I have done really stupid things. This was one of them: I let my copy of Tomorrow Will Be Better (the edition shown in the picture, too!) go for a price that reflected my opinion of Margy better than the market value of the book. I can't do that online. Cheaper editions are sometimes available, but this book has become rare and gone into collectors' prices, and in order to sell a clean copy of this particular edition of Tomorrow Will Be Better online I'll have to charge $25 per book + $5 per package for shipping. For a cheaper edition, $15 per $1 per online payment. It's not even a Fair Trade Book! Please click on the "Fair Trade Book" category and choose one of those!