Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Subway Girls

Title:  The Subway Girls
Author:  Susie Orman Schnall
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Griffin. 2018. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250169763 / 978-1250169761
Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "After extensive research and considerable internal deliberation, Charlotte had submitted employment applications to five advertising agencies, their prestigious footings in Madison Avenue's most glimmering and stalwart buildings having nothing to do with her choices."

Favorite Quote:  "Time has a really incredible way of dulling feelings that you think will be sharp for your entire life. One day you wake up, and sometimes it takes something like this for that to happen, but you realize that the point isn't so pointy. And the edge isn't so jagged. And you find in your heart a way to accept people for who they are, because it's not always entirely their fault."

The Subway Girls, or rather the Miss Subways, are real. It was a group of about 200 women. They were selected about every month to two months between the years 1941 to 1976; the Miss Subway for the month had her photograph and a short description of her placed on posters around the New York City Subways. The women were selected by the John Robert Powers modeling agency.

Was this akin to a beauty contest? Yes. The aimed for look was that of a girl who might be your neighbor or who you might find yourself riding the subway with. These days, the posters can still be seen in books, at the New York Transit Museum, and Ellen's Stardust Diner because Ellen herself was  a Miss Subway.

Susi Orman Schnall takes this bit of history and builds a novel around it. As with many books, this story features two women, two different times, and intersecting stories.

The older woman is Charlotte. Her story begins in the 1940s and with her dream of getting a job in advertising. Mind you, her initial goal is to be selected for the typing pool at one of the agencies; even that would be considered a huge accomplishment for a woman at this time. She dreams of things well beyond that. Family restrictions, societal norms, glass ceilings, and so many other hindrances all tell her that her dreams are beyond reach and take her life in a different direction and to the Miss Subways. "Her mother had always taught her to keep her expectations in check. That way she'd never be disappointed. Yes, Mother dear, ... , but that way you can never dream."

The young woman is Olivia, an executive in an advertising agency. The agency is struggling, and one last opportunity presents itself to preserve the future of the agency. The opportunity becomes a competition between Olivia and a male colleague. The account being pitched is the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the agency responsible for much of the public transportation network in the New York area.

Embedded in both women's stories are love stories. Charlotte's love story is about the freedom to be an individual within a relationship; it is also about the power to decide how far that love exists and what it is willing to forgive. Olivia's love story is about recognizing what true love, based on friendship and respect, means. "Very few things in life unfold the way we thought they would. In fact, you should be suspect when they do. Who cares when the best things in life happen? Don't you see? You're getting everything you wanted. The packaging is a little unexpected and not idea, but the stuff inside, the stuff that really counts, is just right."

Ultimately, this is the story of strong women standing up for their rights and breaking through the obstacles in their way. "Life is all about collecting experiences..." In many ways, Charlotte and Olivia's story are separated by time and change. In many ways, though, the choices that face them and the challenges placed in their way reflect the reality that the gender gap has evolved but not gone away. It is the strength of these characters and the extrapolated vision of the women who became the Miss Subways that give this book its impact.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

1 comment:

  1. So I get pretty tired of the back-and-forth between then-and-now narratives but this one sounds intriguing and I'm wondering how much you enjoyed it? Did the author make all the characters equally interesting? It sounds like it could be great! Love your reviews.