Lamenting about dating apps is such a common trope today that it’s easy to forget that dating woes have existed far longer than “swipe left” was part of the cultural lexicon. In her novel Diary of a Lonely Girl, or The Battle against Free Love, Miriam Karpilove explores the quest to find not just love, but romantic commitment, during the Progressive Era. Progressive for whom, the book might ask. Certainly not the protagonist, a bookworm with a love of celery soda who is exhausted by men’s insistence that she get behind their enthusiasm for “free love.”
This is not the free love of Emma Goldman, though, that sought to unshackle women from “life-long dependency” on their husbands. Our unnamed narrator longs for a dedicated partnership built on mutual attraction, but she is met only with offers from already-married men, and landladies who believe that a steady paycheck should be enough to make a woman swoon. “There’s no need to just snatch up whatever you can find. We’re not talking about hot noodles here,” one uniquely well-meaning landlady insists, but over and over again, our narrator fails to find even one candidate who can equally match her penchants for monogamy and quoting Marxist writers.
Diary of a Lonely Girl can be read as a lighthearted bemoaning of men’s seemingly timeless ability to make women roll their eyes, but lurking beneath its surface are insightful depictions of social issues that women, and Jewish immigrants, faced in twentieth century New York City. As she pleads with her dates to not enter her bedroom lest she be reported to the authorities, the narrator’s fear is palpable. The scenes are chilling not only because they make clear how conceptions of consent have changed for the better, but also because of their nod to the American Plan, a public health program that claimed to combat the spread of sexually transmitted infections. In practice, the laws allowed for the arrest of any woman suspected of prostitution, and scene after scene of the narrator begging various love interests to keep their voices down show the effect of such laws on young women who yearned for independence.
Our narrator also mentions, in brief moments, missing her family in Russia, and her worries for their safety. This, the book suggests, is life during wartime for a young immigrant woman: nightmares and worries in between latke dates and walks with a friend across the Brooklyn Bridge. Rather than diminishing the significance of World War I, these brief interludes illustrate how much the war impacted everyday life, even once immigrants had reached safer ground.
Because it was initially published serially, the book’s romantic anecdotes can occasionally feel a bit repetitive. The conversations between the narrator and her best friend, Rae, however, never get tiresome. Although the book purports to be about romantic relationships, the book’s real story lies in the interactions between women. While the men are singular in their goals and interests, the women are friends and villains, intellectuals and matchmakers, and everything in between. Their dialogue is instilled with a sense of warmth and humor that almost makes the reader long to be walking around the Lower East Side, eating hot noodles and sharing dating woes. Almost — but then in its quietly thoughtful observations, the book reminds the reader of the reality of life in America in 1916, and then we might be grateful for a life with a little more freedom, dating apps and all.
Adina Applebaum is a Program Associate at the Whiting Foundation. She lives in New York.