The Boston Girl: A Novel

November 18, 2014

A new nov­el from Ani­ta Dia­mant is an event, and The Boston Girl is worth the five-year wait.

When Addie Baum’s grand­daugh­ter asks the octo­ge­nar­i­an how she became the woman she is, her answer takes the form of thisp book. In ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Boston, teenaged Addie finds her voice,” as she puts it, through the com­pa­ny of intel­li­gent and car­ing friends and female role mod­els. Born in Boston, Addie has a dif­fer­ent mind­set than her Old-World immi­grant par­ents, see­ing edu­ca­tion and the world of work as pro­vid­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties her par­ents can­not com­pre­hend her want­i­ng. Addie is a pis­tol,” and with humor and can­dor she describes a life that is by turns fun­ny and sad, as she remem­bers the con­flicts that arose as she pur­sued her dream of liv­ing independently.

Of course there is romance as well. Sev­er­al false starts with unsuit­able men are sur­vived with the abun­dance of clear-eyed com­mon sense that keeps her from mak­ing the ruinous choic­es that swal­lowed girls like her alive in ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. It is her friend­ships with women that form the core of the book, how­ev­er, from her ear­ly sum­mers at a sea­side board­ing house (the real life Rock­port Lodge, metic­u­lous­ly researched by Dia­mant) to the bit­ter­sweet reunion in old age with her friend Filom­e­na, who has chart­ed her own rocky course to a ful­fill­ing life.

Diamant’s nar­ra­tive approach of hav­ing Addie tell her sto­ry to her twen­ty-two-year-old grand­daugh­ter has advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages. As the read­er eaves­drops on what is pre­sent­ed as an inti­mate pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion, Addie becomes so real that it is hard to remem­ber she is Diamant’s inven­tion. Still it is hard not to wish that the focus were broad­er, so that more could be brought into the sto­ry than Addie can, or choos­es, to tell.

One of Diamant’s great­est strengths as a nov­el­ist is her abil­i­ty to con­vey the dynam­ics and diver­si­ty of rela­tion­ships among women, whether the back­drop is the great his­tor­i­cal dra­ma of The Red Tent or Day After Night, or the more inti­mate set­ting of Good Har­bor. The Boston Girl hon­ors the strength of women and the pow­er of their friend­ships and shows how pro­found­ly the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry was shaped by women like Addie Baum. This would be a good choice for book clubs and Young Adult read­ers as well.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Scrib­n­er Books

  • Ear­ly on it is clear that Addie has a rebel­lious streak, join­ing the library group and run­ning away to Rock­port Lodge. Is Addie right to dis­obey her par­ents? Where does she get her courage?

  • Addie’s moth­er refus­es to see Celia’s death as any­thing but an acci­dent, and Addie com­ments that when­ev­er I heard my mother’s ver­sion of what hap­pened, I felt sick to my stom­ach” (page 94). Did Celia com­mit sui­cide? How might the guilt that Addie feels dif­fer from the guilt her moth­er feels?

  • When Addie tries on pants for the first time, she feels emo­tion­al­ly as well as phys­i­cal­ly lib­er­at­ed, and con­fess­es that she would like to go to col­lege (page 108). How does the social sig­nif­i­cance of cloth­ing and hair­style dif­fer for Addie, Gussie, and Filom­e­na in the book?

  • Dia­mant fills her nar­ra­tive with a num­ber of his­tor­i­cal events and fig­ures, from the psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of World War I and the pan­dem­ic out­break of influen­za in 1918 to child labor laws to the cul­tur­al impact of Bet­ty Friedan. How do real-life peo­ple and events affect how we read Addie’s fic­tion­al story?

  • Gussie is one of the most for­ward-think­ing char­ac­ters in the nov­el; how­ev­er, despite her law degree she has trou­ble find­ing a job as an attor­ney because no one would hire a lady lawyer” (page 145). What oth­er lim­i­ta­tions do Addie and her friends face in the work force? What lim­i­ta­tions do women and/​or minori­ties face today?

  • After dis­tanc­ing her­self from Ernie when he suf­fers a ner­vous episode brought on by com­bat stress, Addie sees a com­mu­ni­ty of war vet­er­ans come for­ward to assist him (page 155). What does the remorse that Addie lat­er feels sug­gest about the chal­lenges Amer­i­can sol­diers face as they rein­te­grate into soci­ety? Do you think sol­diers today face sim­i­lar challenges?

  • Addie notices that the Rock­port locals seem relat­ed to one anoth­er, and the cook Mrs. Morse con­fides in her sis­ter that, although she is usu­al­ly sus­pi­cious of immi­grant board­ers, some of them are nicer than Amer­i­cans” (page 167). How does tol­er­ance of the immi­grant pop­u­la­tion vary between city and town in the nov­el? For whom might Mrs. Morse reserve the term Amer­i­cans”?

  • Addie is ini­tial­ly drawn to Tes­sa Thorndike because she is a Boston Brah­min who isn’t afraid to poke fun at her own class on the women’s page of the news­pa­per. What strengths and weak­ness­es does Tessa’s char­ac­ter rep­re­sent for edu­cat­ed women of the time? How does Addie’s descrip­tion of Tes­sa bring her reli­a­bil­i­ty into question?

  • Addie’s par­ents fre­quent­ly admon­ish her for being ungrate­ful, but Addie feels she has earned her free­dom to move into a board­ing house when her par­ents move to Rox­bury, in part because she con­tributed to the fam­i­ly income (page 185). How does the Baum fam­i­ly move to Rox­bury show the ways Bet­ty and Addie think dif­fer­ent­ly than their par­ents about house­hold roles? Why does their father take such offense at Harold Levine’s offer to house the family?

  • The last mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tion between Addie and her moth­er turns out to be an apol­o­gy her moth­er meant for Celia, and for a moment dur­ing her mother’s funer­al Addie thinks, She won’t be able to make me feel like there’s some­thing wrong with me any­more” (page 276). Does Addie find any clo­sure from her mother’s death?

  • Filom­e­na draws a dis­tinc­tion between love and mar­riage when she spends time catch­ing up with Addie before her wed­ding, but Addie dis­agrees with the asser­tion that you only get one great love in a life­time” (page 289). In what ways do the dif­fer­ent roman­tic expe­ri­ences of each woman inform the ideas each has about love?

  • Filom­e­na and Addie share a deep friend­ship. Addie tells Ada that some­times friends grow apart…But some­times, it doesn’t mat­ter how far apart you live or how lit­tle you talk — it’s still there” (page 283). What qual­i­ties do you think friends must share in order to have that kind of con­nec­tion? Dis­cuss your rela­tion­ship with a best friend.