Diary of a Lone­ly Girl, or The Bat­tle against Free Love

Miri­am Karpilove, Jes­si­ca Kirzane (trans.), Deb­o­rah Man­ion (ed.)

  • Review
By – January 11, 2021

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.

Discussion Questions