In Jennifer Brown’s debut novel, Modern Girls, she tells the story of a mother and daughter who both find themselves pregnant. As a Jewish immigrant, caring for her large family on the Lower East Side, Rose struggles with assimilating to the modern times, whereas her daughter, Dottie, is better adjusted. After work, Dottie has drinks with her friends, goes on dates, and speaks in English as opposed to Yiddish. After a regrettable one-night-stand, Dottie becomes pregnant, which jeopardizes her bookkeeping career as well as her future with her stable boyfriend, Abe.
Brown uses a dual narrative to illustrate the characters’ depths and their differing perspectives on the world. We are able to hear their voices and begin to understand the characters on a deeper, more emotional level. Rose embodies the American dream, in every way. She wants more for her children than she has and has sacrificed her own happiness for that of her children. Rose often finds herself reminiscing about her days of political activism, which she would like to return to once her children are grown. Now that she is pregnant once more, she fears that she has lost her individual identity in motherhood and will never have the opportunity to regain it.
Dottie, a talented bookkeeper, is climbing the ranks in her career, an impressive feat in her ostensibly sexist firm. Her mother wants Dottie to explore her individuality before starting a family and gives Dottie the money she has surreptitiously saved for herself, for Dottie to go to business school. However, their unwanted pregnancies threaten to impede the ambitions of both women.
Modern Girls gives an accurate representation of the clash between the changing times and the persistence of gender inequality in society. There were limited opportunities and choices for women during the 1930s, especially within the immigrant community.
As the existence of the traditional American gender roles subsided and women were no longer expected to tend the household, Rose’s pregnancy threatens to keep her tied to the familial chains that she has been looking to ease away from. Dottie, too, fears that her pregnancy will hinder her promising career and force her to live the traditional life that she had been trying to avoid, which begs the question: Is Dottie really the modern girl she represents?
How Rose and Dottie come to terms with and deal with their pregnancies is admirable and touching, which makes Modern Girls a charming and engaging read.