The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul – a novel of the women of Jazz Age New York, featuring Dorothy Parker and her circle
The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul
A novel set in New York City in 1921 would be interesting – when it features Dorothy Parker in all her wit and reality together with the women around her, it is fascinating. In Gill Paul’s latest novel where she takes real women and weaves a convincing piece of fiction around them, Dorothy becomes Dottie, a woman who needs the support of others as she plunges from relationship to desperate state and creative blur and back again. Not that those around her are quiet and lacking in fame and achievement. Jane Grant was the determined first female reporter for the New York Times and passionately working towards founding a new Magazine. Peggy Leech worked on a magazine and her brilliant novels. Winifred Lenihan was a talented actress on Broadway who met with challenges because of her beauty. All these women live, laugh and work hard in this memorable and enjoyable novel which celebrates their relationship despite the pressures each felt in breaking with rules and expectations in a fast moving world. This is a world of Prohibition but where alcohol could be bought, made and enjoyed everywhere, where women faced age old problems of discrimination and vulnerability in new guises, where romance, passion and marriage were not always easy. It is a very enjoyable book as the focus moves from woman to woman for each chapter, revealing their thoughts and ambitions, their disappointments and challenges. It is a novel of friendship and support, gossip and achievement, where Dottie is capable of dry wit and humour in her worst moments as she struggles with her capacity for attachment. It is a novel of the Jazz Age when women had great opportunities and yet discover the world is still against them in so many ways. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent book.
As with Paul’s other novels, she has obviously done a lot of research into the lives of her subjects and made much of the facts that she discovered. In the back of the novel, she mentions how she moved and manipulated the biographical timelines of Dorothy’s life in particular in order to explain her known struggles with mental health, and paraphrased and gave settings for some of her best known quips. Exactly what motivated each woman at each stage is looked at in terms of the widely known facts about their achievements and marriages. Paul also looks at those around them, including the famous playwrights, journalists and writers that were known to them.
This is a book which deals with a very active time in the woman’s lives, when they were pursuing their ambitions despite some of the people around them who intentionally or otherwise put-up blocks to their progress. All of them went on to have an impact in some respect, so the piece at the end of the novel that outlines what happened next is especially valuable. It is not a time and place I know a lot about, but I gradually learnt a lot about the time and in particular how women lived in the atmosphere of changing values and challenges. Dorothy especially is seen as vulnerable in unexpected ways, and yet none of the women however well meaning and supportive has it easy. I enjoyed reading about each woman from their own perspective, as they discovered the truth about the people around them. Marriage was a goal in some respects, but it was no guarantee of happiness or success. Winifred’s story, in particular, was a revelation, with considerable implications for women’s lives today. Altogether this is a very exciting and interesting book which I thoroughly recommend as giving a voice to women in a specific time and place which has echoes for life in the twenty first century.