The Failed Promise of Having It All

Rona Jaffe’s classic novel explores the age-old question, but contains a darker message for contemporary readers.

Image of half a woman's face, juxtaposed with another woman's face in profile
Illustration by Celina Periera. Source: Getty.

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In the 1950s, The New York Times ran a job advertisement: “Help Wanted—Girls.” “You deserve the best of everything,” it read. “The best job, the best surroundings, the best pay, the best contacts.” It was a promise of financial, emotional, and intellectual success—a guarantee that the working world would pay off. Its implicit message was even more alluring: Women could be fulfilled by their job without having to compromise in other areas of their life. They could have freedom.

The conundrum of that ad wasn’t lost on the author Rona Jaffe. “Today girls are freer to do what they want and be what they want and think what they want, and the trouble is they’re not quite sure what they want,” she said in a 1958 interview shortly after her first novel was published. The Best of Everything—a play on the advertisement copy—was Jaffe’s attempt at capturing the real experiences of women around her and contending with the failure of that promise. “If every nice girl had had a happy ending and had everything that she wanted,” she said, “I wouldn’t have had to write the book.”

Jaffe’s novel, now reissued, chronicles the lives of four young women in the early stages of their careers and romances. While working at a publishing house in her 20s, Jaffe met a Hollywood producer who was looking for “a book about working girls in New York” to turn into a film; when he told her the kind of salacious story line he was imagining, she thought it was ridiculous. “He doesn’t know anything about women. I know about women,” she thought. She quit her job and wrote the novel in five months. She talked with 50 working women about their goals and the pressures they faced from bosses, men, families—what, in short, they thought the “best of everything” looked like, and how it felt to want it so much.

It was an instant best seller. The original manuscript was copied by a group of typists at Simon & Schuster, who would excitedly read the chapters they were assigned and then call her to tell her they couldn’t wait to read the rest. “There’s my audience,” Jaffe thought. Young women everywhere could relate to the experience of juggling all the things they were expected to achieve in order to finally make it and be happy. The book gave voice to their specific desires, even as it tapped into the hardships of moving to a new city, starting a life alone, and grasping, by turns, for connection and independence.

Jaffe’s main characters—Caroline, the sophisticated, ambitious New Yorker; April, the romantic girl from Colorado; Gregg, the glamorous aspiring actress; and Barbara, the struggling single mother—all cross paths during their time at Fabian Publications. Along the way, they date terrible men, manage unwanted advances from senior editors, and find their place in the big city. At no point in the story do they really “make it,” but in the meantime, they get as much from the world around them as they possibly can, trying to wrangle proposals or free steaks or promotions or raises out of the men who hold sway over their life. The intensity of their desire, their desperation, is riveting. “It’s hell to be a woman,” Gregg thinks during a he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not spiral, “to want so much love, to feel like only half a person.”

This yearning drives the book. The women are sweet but unapologetic about their desires: They want to be important, loved, successful, dependable. They take tiny steps. Gregg says “I love you” on her first date with a famous playwright. Caroline, terrified, submits her editorial notes on a manuscript to the publisher, feeling “half thrill, half uneasiness” because she knows she’s contradicting her boss.

Her first lover, an older man in her office, compares Caroline with her female colleagues, who Caroline describes as having “no ambition except to do their work satisfactorily, disappear at five o’clock on the dot, and line up at the bank on payday.” Caroline, in contrast, feels stymied. She doesn’t want to enter “the land of marriage and respectability,” the man observes, and give up her job once she finds an eligible suitor, the way many of her peers do—but she also can’t bring herself to “break with tradition” completely. Caroline realizes that she wants “to get ahead, to make more money, to have more responsibilities and to be recognized,” but she also longs for a steady partner who is both supportive and understanding of her career and compelling in his own right.

Wanting more than what the world will give you—expecting not just contentment but also joy, not just stability but also success—can become terribly lonely, or guilt-inducing. Gregg mourns the fact that people can’t “realize what a rare and miraculous thing closeness could be,” and spends her years in New York trying desperately to find intimacy with her emotionally unavailable sort-of boyfriend. After her brief relationship with the older man, Caroline spends most of the novel dating a pleasant, considerate man who takes her for nice meals and remembers their anniversary, but has no interest in her work or curiosity about the world. (“Reach me!” she cries out to him silently.)

Jaffe’s novel suggests that holding two realities in your mind is unmooring. Such a state requires being at once patient and demanding, cautious and reckless, devoted and independent, demure and outspoken—an impossible conundrum. April, trying to build the life she wants, realizes—in the middle of an excruciatingly drawn-out conversation during which her boyfriend concentrates on making a cocktail while it dawns on her that he has never had any intention of marrying her, as he had promised—that “perhaps he could not really love.”

And yet, April considers that this, too, might be a compromise she could bring herself to make—that perhaps his wanting to be with her, “if it was all [he] could manage,” was bearable. Her strength, she recognizes, “was more the kind of desperation that comes with weakness, the power that gives a ninety-pound woman drowning in the water the ability to swamp a careless lifeguard.” As beautiful as April makes this steel-magnolia approach to life seem—and no matter how much she truly believes in it—it is tainted by her lack of negotiating power. Still, in her sense of self-preservation, there is generosity and a sometimes-breathtaking openness to people and things as they are.

April compares the slow, painful conversation with her boyfriend to having a tooth drilled: “After a while it hurt so much you didn’t really notice it any more.” Following along with these women today may prompt a similar feeling. Each one of them is mistreated—slut-shamed, ghosted, dumped, forced to have an abortion, threatened to be fired if they object to being molested—and somehow, they continue from the wreckage. As they wait for their efforts to pay off, they keep themselves company, constructing rich inner worlds, talking to themselves out loud, allowing themselves to daydream. Barbara, the single mother, upon falling in love despite her best efforts, accepts that all she can do is “hope for a safe landing.”

This solitary stoicism is perhaps the best the characters are able to manage in a world where they are essentially alone. “Back then, people didn’t talk about not being a virgin,” Jaffe wrote in a 2005 introduction to the book. “They didn’t talk about abortion. They didn’t talk about sexual harassment, which had no name in those days.” The only recourse is their own company, and perhaps one another; the characters have to get by however they can while maintaining their silence. Their bad luck becomes more and more troubling, and the novel takes a sharp, dark turn; by the end, none of them has achieved her so-called best life. Jaffe wrote that she was always surprised when women came up to her to say that the book “changed their lives,” because she considered it “a cautionary tale.” The writer Mary McCarthy felt similarly about her best-selling novel, The Group, published only five years after Jaffe’s novel and likely highly influenced by it. McCarthy’s characters, like Jaffe’s, were mocked by literary critics; they were all, to some degree or another, perceived as tragic cases.

But McCarthy’s characters, like Jaffe’s, were more interested in the world’s promises than in its failures; their characters may have been less inclined even than their authors to see themselves as tragic cases. Most of their readers probably felt the same, if they took the novels more as a gesture of empathy than as a warning; the books offer a camaraderie that the real world largely denied them. And although The Best of Everything doesn’t portray a version of life that guarantees freedom and happiness, its protagonists understand the uncertainty of their future, accepting whatever small joys and high points they can. They might long for a guarantee, but they’ll move on just the same without it. “I wish life could always be like this minute,” Barbara thinks wistfully at one point, in a rare spell of happiness that she knows is unlikely to endure. Barbara does ultimately get surprised by a pleasant ending. But readers may be left thinking that if she has to, if her happy minute does come to a close, she’ll be able to find the next one too.

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