Reviewed by Amy Gruzesky
In this short, endearing and eloquently written story of four young immigrant women, the reader is treated to a beautiful tale of friendship, endurance, strength and the raw determination they possess as they each try to find their own personal version of the American Dream.
We meet Caprice, independent, ambitious, and fighting against the social and cultural norms of her time in wanting to own her own hat shop and live a true American life; Maria, pretty and set on not wasting her beauty or potential like her mother did in marrying her father, an alcoholic with a penchant for gambling, and turns to a man who is all wrong for her; Ada, smart and driven, taking college courses behind her father’s back because she knows he’d disapprove, and at the same time falling for a boy of a different faith; and Thea, a traditionalist who wants the security of marriage — even an arranged one, while still not wanting to lose herself, her independence, or her connection to her friends.
These are the main characters in The Saturday Evening Girls’ Club, Jane Healey’s historical novel inspired by a real-life library/pottery club of the same name in Boston, and the stories of young immigrant women living and working in Boston’s North End in the early 1900’s, which she had come across in her research.
While a fascinating portrayal of early 20th century Boston and the lives of poor, working immigrants, the book is more a story of friendship, and the important role women play in each other’s lives — lending emotional support, comraderie, protection and an honest mirror to one another.
It is also a story of empowerment, because these four women are way ahead of their time and I found myself cheering each one on in their endeavors and feeling sad and frustrated when they came face to face with tragedy and adversity.
The women navigate the strict adherence to tradition and a woman’s subservient role in both her family and community, as well as in love and romance — fighting their families’ efforts to pick a spouse for them, in the hopes of finding true love and creating their own version of attaining the American dream and having something more than their parents did.
For Caprice, it means fighting off her father’s ongoing stream of hand-picked suitors and working to save enough money to open up her own hat shop.
For Maria, it means not marrying someone who will not be able to adequately provide for her, and becoming an old woman before her time.
For Ada, it means pursuing a college education, even though that was not something considered appropriate for a young, immigrant woman to do in those times.
And for Thea, it means allowing herself to embrace the security in tradition that she realizes she wants, while not losing herself in its pursuit.
How these women come to terms with forging their own adult identities and overcoming the restrictions that their families, society and the culture of the day impressed upon them, is inspiring and uplifting.
I was also impressed with how the author worked in details of the Boston of 1909 and the backgrounds of the characters, the prejudices of the day and the immigrant struggle to make it in America. While some books will have lengthy, fact-filled paragraphs that read like a textbook, Healey interjects facts and history into the story in snippets of conversation, or as part of a description of a tenement or someone’s attitude or persona.
This book will leave you knowing a bit more about the immigrant experience from a personalized point of view, while also fulfilled and inspired by the stories of these young women.