Careers for Women

51Zl+TlJY2L._AC_US218_  Any story culminating in the fate of the World Trade Center in New York City already carries a pall of anxiety, but Joanna Scott focuses on the stories of women only peripherally connected yet forever affected by those towers.  The story bounces across decades, from the inception of the architecture to it final demise, with a stream of consciousness narrative that can be hard to follow.

Back in the nineteen fifties, women executives were rare and Lee, know as Mrs. J to her staff, is a formidable force in public relations for the Port Authority, selling the idea and managing the opposition of small businesses who will be displaced by the new two towers World Trade Center.  Other women include Maggie, an ambitious young assistant on Mrs. J’s staff and the story’s narrator; Pauline, whose perils never seem to end; and Kay, the erstwhile wife of the philandering manager of the aluminum plant supplying the materials for the project.  Their lives interconnect as they struggle to survive both professionally and personally.

Several story lines bind the streaming structure – a corpse appears in the woods, the aluminum plant poisons the adjacent farmland and water table, and the plant mysteriously explodes.  And, despite the intricate architecture of the narrative, following the lives of the women is satisfying.  Although their lives slowly build over the years, none are in the Trade Center on that fateful day.

Maggie’s voice sometimes sounds like a documentary, with a news broadcaster’s cold observations.  At times, Scott purposely drops in cryptic images that pop up again later in the book; more than once, I thought I should reread a section with the reference – if only I could find it.  At one point in the novel, Scott has one of her characters state: ” {she} compared the experience to rereading the kind of book in which the end invites you to go back to the beginning and read again, with new attention…” and I imagined she was reassuring me, the reader, when I found myself unbalanced and confused in the miasma of the images floating back and forth from decade to decade.

Reading Careers for Women is a complicated venture, but worthwhile.

Related Review: Joanna Scott’s DePotter’s Grand Tour

 

 

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De Potter’s Grand Tour

9780374162337_p0_v1_s260x420If I had met Joanna Scott’s Armand de Potter and his wife Aimee, tour directors extraordinaire, I would have signed up to follow them around the world, and probably never questioned their authenticity.  In De Potter’s Grand Tour, Scott treats the reader to vicarious trips to Europe, Egypt, and exotic experiences popular in the world tours of the late 1800s.  The tour leader is charming, well-read, educated and a distinguished man of letters who is also an imposter.

Scott loosely bases the story on her grandparents’ letters and experiences, inserting actual black and white photographs to make the characters seem real.  Her writing style reads like a documentary, coldly observing the action, but the book is fiction.

Armand de Potter is the focus of the gambit, an immigrant who yearns to be respected as a collector of artefacts, with a talent for organizing and leading tours.  Like a modern day Tauck, de Potter manages his group’s needs with ease, and always inserts significant insider glimpses of venues and speakers otherwise not available to the touring public – endearing himself to his travelers, while they praise him to their friends and fuel his business.

Unknown to his wife and his business associates, de Potter’s background is more peasant than aristocrat, and his yearning to be a collector has jeopardized his finances.  Although he has managed to collect a sizable amount of Egyptian antiquities, their provenances are questionable and he has donated them all to the University of Pennsylvania, in the vain hope for an honorary degree and recognition.  With the creditors at his heels, De Potter decides that his life insurance policy is his only saving worth.

The story itself is fueled by the reason for dePotter’s disappearance.  Scott cleverly dangles the possibilities of whether or not he died at sea, purposely or accidentally, or deceived the crew and walked away into an anonymous life, leaving his wife to reconcile the debts and believe him dead. His fate is not revealed until the ending, and by then the reader has probably decided whether or not de Potter is a scoundrel or merely a harmless pretender.

With Scott’s ploy to convince the reader of the truth of the story, the reader never really understands the main character; he seems contrived.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading about those glamorous grand tours, when travel by ship rather than plane brought the curious to far-off sites, and walking miles was the rule for appreciating hidden treasures –  the good old times when noone could recline a plane seat into my lap.