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Against the Grain

Wed, 02/21/2024 - 13:37
Ellen Feldman
Laura Mozes

“The Trouble With You”
Ellen Feldman
St. Martin's Griffin, $19

With her ninth book of historical fiction in a career spanning over 20 years thus far, Ellen Feldman continues to supply characters that interest, juicy historical details, and expert pacing of a solid plotline. 

"The Trouble With You" takes up the story of a pivotal period in the life of one Fanny Fabricant, first the bride of a doctor who is shipping off for service, then the widowed mother of a young daughter making a life and career in post-World War II New York City. Aside from possession of a fabulous and persona-constructing name, Fanny has a good education from a Seven Sisters college, a way with words, an attracting effect on men, and an independent streak. 

Social mores and gender roles squeeze in to define Fanny's path but for her sense of self-reliance and the support of her Aunt Rose, a single woman of a certain age with unconventional social views and a past out of lockstep with her peers. Aunt Rose runs her own dressmaking business for the upwardly mobile and sartorially ambitious (willing to pay for a knockoff of the best; a Dior New Look dotted swiss dress, for example) and is Fanny's rock and confidante. 

Running counter to Rose's influence is Fanny's cousin Mimi, also the widowed mother of a daughter, but her trajectory is super conventional: second-husband-seeking, then a baby on the way, and plenty of censorious commentary on those who stray. 

As advisers, the diverging Rose/Mimi axis represents a frequent structure in Ms. Feldman's solidly built narrative. Contrast-twinning of characters' attributes is a hallmark of the novel. Characters mix and match as the reader encounters two doctors, two suitors, two successful working women, two cousins, etc., each pair with attitudes that diverge if not conflict. 

Ms. Feldman works this setup with careful details and consistency, building characters in terms of both what they are and what they are not. Meanwhile, she skillfully leverages this tension as a structural element in moving the plot: The story builds to Fanny making a choice between two contrasting elements represented by two contrasting characters. Hint: men. 

But no spoilers here, and readers will appreciate a certain elegance in a third option that arises naturally from Ms. Feldman's careful construction.

Fanny's plot thickens when she takes a job as a secretary to the successful female lead writer on a suite of radio soap operas and comes into contact with an insouciant, iconoclastic writer; he is flirty, with a penchant for the theatrical and a risk-taking habit of taking coded swings at McCarthy-era proceedings in the scripts he writes for the radio serials. 

The plot further thickens when an attractive opportunity arises for Fanny out of the hostility of Red Scare blacklisting. Add a growing romance with a steady, nice Jewish pediatrician with whom Fanny's deceased husband went to medical school (it's a small post-World War II Upper West Side), and the plot layers as the stakes deepen. 

Ms. Feldman has written a young widowed mother with desires against the grain of her time. Believable challenges ensue. Motherhood, work, personhood. Fictional object lessons in practical feminism make Fanny's life absorbing.

Snappy dialogue throughout the novel is entertaining, quippy, and full of witty repartee. Often it is delightful, like eating a fresh crunchy carrot. Though all of the dialogue may not be entirely convincing, gritty realism is not the intention of the novel, and readers will enjoy the retro, stylized feel to the characters' spoken interaction, which has the added benefit of creating historically accurate ambience with references to Philco television sets, Sardi's restaurant, and the like. 

Slang and swingy talk pops up often in conversation between Fanny and her attractive writer friend: "You know, Fanny Fabricant, I'm beginning to think maybe you're more than a pretty face and a good pair of pins after all." His irrepressible and overt flirtations have the required dusting of irony that saves him from male-pattern offensiveness in the world of the novel as well as from a contemporary reader's standpoint. 

Much of the talk in the novel between female characters revolves around women's issues and gender equity; characters particularly consider work outside the home and the social currency of being married. Occasionally, Ms. Feldman's otherwise deft hand shows when she bolds a feminist arc with lines that seem to make characters her mouthpiece.

If a promise of high-caliber historical fiction is to reveal the workings of our own time, "The Trouble With You" makes good. Our culture is far from dispensing with gendered roles and expectations for women, and women who work outside the home continue to face the wear of dueling responsibilities. Perhaps the psychological pull of conforming to expectations, and the conflict it engenders in those who seek independence of all kinds, cuts across our American timescape. 

Additionally, the appearance and effects of McCarthyism in the novel have direct relevance to today's atmosphere of censorship and exclusion. Red Scare-era repressions played out in cultural institutions and cultural production; today, hostile accusations fly and new iterations of old systems of silencing rear up, just as ugly and just as present in all echelons. 

To be sure, Ms. Feldman does not center a freedom-of-political-expression agenda. Her novel is a historical romance with McCarthyism as a backdrop that develops into a device to move the plot, but the fodder of the narrative contributes to a reader's understanding of the overlap of historic pitfalls with those of the present.

By way of earning historical fiction marks, the novel is studded with well-researched details. Ms. Feldman is a bit like a skilled name-dropper here, seamlessly letting slip interesting particulars calculated to impress her readers, often in line with her protagonist's literary bent, as when Fanny is reading "her book by one of the Elizabeths — Janeway, Taylor, or Gaskell" — or when Willa Cather makes a (subtle) cameo in one of the scenes. Her use of the 1946 capitalism-critical (and surprisingly timeless) illustrated children's book "The Bear That Wasn't" by Frank Tashlin to develop the novel's progression is a fine amalgam of research and inventiveness. 

Mining the post-World War II era for its style, its social constrictions, and its political tensions, Ms. Feldman offers a historical romance with flair in all the right places.

Evan Harris is the author of "The Quit." She lives in East Hampton.

Ellen Feldman also lives in East Hampton. Her previous World War II novel was "The Living and the Lost."

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