The Subway Girls

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Griffin for providing me with a copy of Susie Orman Schnall’s novel, The Subway Girls, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– It’s 1949 and Charlotte Friedman has just finished a typist course at Hunter’s College. She is eager to figure out a way to break into the advertising industry, even if she must work in the typing pool while figuring out how to show her male superiors that she is not only eager, but also capable and creative.

Charlotte suffers a set-back when she learns that there are no jobs available in her dream agencies and what’s more, her father needs her help at the family paint shop. Charlotte is beginning to feel that her dreams will never come true, when she manages to become a semi-finalist in the Miss Subways contest. The Miss Subways are a joint venture between The New York Transit Authority and the famed John Roberts Power Modeling Agency: a contest where one ordinary, yet beautiful, local girl is picked a month to grace posters in Subway cars. Initially skeptical, Charlotte realizes that by winning the contest she might be able to leverage her five-minutes of fame to lure customers to her father’s business and in return, she will gain her freedom to pursue her dreams.

In 2018, Olivia is living Charlotte’s dream of working in advertising, yet, the dream is not fully realized. Olivia is smart and capable, yet she struggles to be heard in a business that is still a “boy’s club.” Olivia has a debilitating crush on her boss, Matt, with whom she has been carrying on a secret, casual sex-based relationship. When the agency has a chance to pitch a campaign to the New York Transit Authority, Matt pits Olivia in an idea contest, against Olivia’s rival, Thomas. One of Olivia’s ideas takes her down the rabbit hole of the Miss Subway’s contest and she meets women from a different generation who make a big impact on her life.

LIKE- I’m a fan of Historical Fiction and I love the concept for The Subway Girls. After finishing Schnall’s novel, I spent a few hours looking at the original posters and reading about the real-life inspirations for this story. It was fascinating and I hope to visit the New York Transportation Museum in the near future to see the exhibit about the Miss Subways campaign. Schnall had a great idea to write a story that parallels the lives of two characters, two women from different generations, both with huge dreams.

The comparing of women from two generations, looking at how much things have both changed and stayed the same with regard to expectations and opportunity, was compelling. Although Olivia isn’t expected to marry and let her husband take care of her, she still must fight for equal treatment in her workplace. As a woman born in the late 1970’s to a single, working mother, I had been raised to believe that anything was possible. If I worked hard enough, I could do or be anything that I wanted. I still believe that, but it is slightly dampened by my work experience in male dominated areas. It is a fight sometimes. I could relate to Olivia’s situation.

I did not anticipate the big twist with Charlotte’s character. That was quite a surprise and well-done.

DISLIKE– I can’t give specific examples because it happened throughout the story, but I often felt the dialogue rang false. It took me out of the story-world. I enjoyed the characters and overall plot enough to push past the dialogue issues. I felt the problems were primarily with the younger Charlotte chapters.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Yes, if you’re a fan of Historical Fiction or mid-century New York City. I enjoyed The Subway Girls, but in the long-run, I’m not sure that it will make my list of most memorable novels of 2018. Whether or not you read Schnall’s novel, make sure to look up the Miss Subways for a bit of yesteryear nostalgia.

See What I Have Done

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Thank You to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an advance copy of Sarah Schmidt’s novel, See What I Have Done, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOTSee What I Have Done is Sarah Schmidt’s historical fiction retelling of the infamous Lizzie Borden case. Schmidt alternates between the narration of Lizzie, Emma Borden (Lizzie’s older sister), Bridget ( a disgruntled Irish housekeeper), and Benjamin ( a stranger hired by Lizzie’s uncle to intimidate and possibly kill Andrew Borden). Although Lizzie was arrested, tried, and eventually acquitted of killing her father and stepmother, was she the one with the best motive? Who was really guilty in this still unsolved case?

LIKE- I love both true crime and historical fiction, so I was eager to read Schmidt’s See What I Have Done. Like most people, I’ve heard of the Lizzie Borden story and I know the gruesome school-yard rhyme about her whacking her parents with an axe, however while reading this novel, I realized that I didn’t know much about Borden or her family history. For example, I always thought this took place on a farm, but although Andrew Borden had an interest in farming, they were not primarily farmers. The Borden family was wealthy and Lizzie had even been sent on a “Grand Tour” to Europe. I suppose the fact that they were a prominent family, made this case all the more shocking.

I liked how Schmidt focused on the sister dynamic between Lizzie and Emma. It’s fraught with tension, jealousy, and even fear. I found it interesting that after such a close relationship, even sharing a house after Lizzie was released from jail, that they became estranged. This twist leads me to believe that Emma felt that her sister likely committed the murder and perhaps felt nervous for her own safety. Schmidt writes Lizzie as someone calculating and unstable. Although other people had motive to murder the Bordens, it seems like Lizzie is the most likely culprit.

Schmidt’s writing style is effortless to read. She is masterful at setting scenes and using rich sensory images. It’s quite gruesome when she gets to the details of the murder, specifically the carnage.

DISLIKE– Schmidt overlaps many of the plot points to show a different view with a switch in character perspective, and although this is often effective, it can also feel repetitive. I wish there had been more on the actual trial and Lizzie’s perspective when she was in jail. These are minor complaints though, because overall, I was captivated by Schmidt’s novel.

RECOMMEND – Yes, especially for true crime and historical fiction fans. If you even have the slightest interest in Lizzie Borden, See What I Have Done is a must read.