Let me start the review by saying this: if you reach for The Boston Girl because you’re expecting a repeat performance of The Red Tent, then please think twice.
The Red Tent is a marvelous, sweeping biblical tale that is as fascinating as it is emotional. The Boston Girl is a coming-of-age story about a lovely young woman who grew up in Boston in the early twentieth century. The mixed reviews that I’m seeing for The Boston Girl are starting to get to me. “This is no Red Tent,” or “this was a disappointment” are hollow criticisms. Naysayers are correct that Anita Diamant’s newest novel is nothing like her previous bestseller. This is because they are very, very different books.
Here’s the thing though: they were clearly intended to be.
You should pick up The Boston Girl ready to fall in love with a darling protagonist. You should want to accompany her as she realizes her full potential in life. If you pick up this novel with those intentions, then I predict that you will be as smitten as I found myself to be. I also promise that the feminist undercurrent that was so present in The Red Tent is alive and well in this novel too. It’s just a little quieter this time.
Meet Addie Baum, the narrator of her own story. Present day Addie is an eighty-five-year-old grandmother who is being interviewed by her granddaughter. Young Addie is a girl born in 1900 to immigrant parents who have immense trust issues with their new home. Addie has two lovely sisters, who were cut from opposite cloths. Her mother is an unbearable creature who angrily longs for her homeland and regularly attempts to douse any ambitions that her daughters have. Addie’s father is a more reasonable character, devout in his religion, and often questionable in his dealings with people outside of their apartment. Addie lives with all of them, and must negotiate her way through regular scoldings about her aspirations and how her ultimate goal should be to make someone a dutiful wife.
The joy of this novel is in witnessing Addie’s discovery of her own voice. As she recounts her life story to her granddaughter, Addie starts with the year 1915, and ends with present day. There isn’t an insincere moment in this retelling, as she opens her heart and shares every triumph and frustration. What I loved most about Addie’s character was how real she was. There wasn’t an unkind bone in her body. Spending a lifetime seeing the good in people turned her into an incredibly beautiful and accomplished human being. It would be wrong, however, to assume that her own benevolence wasn’t a form of feminism in its own right. She was incapable of being disingenuous, and this characteristic actually helped to propel her own ambitions. She joined a library group for girls when she was young (much to the chagrin of her mother). She held interesting jobs. She continued with her education. She didn’t marry the first person her mother shoved at her. She remained true to herself the entire time. This resulted in a life of fantastic friendships, invaluable experiences, and the truest love that anyone could ever hope to find.
As your steps fall in line with Addie’s, history also plays its hand. Diamant deftly inserts significant events, all of which culminate into a tumultuous time in our past. Through the pages of this novel, Diamant addresses WWI, child labor, the flu of 1918, women’s suffrage, orphan trains and Southern lynchings. No stone is left unturned. The reader is brought face-to-face with abortion, mental illness, suicide and heartbreaking post-traumatic stress disorder. What I’m saying is that I don’t want anyone to underestimate this book. While it’s crafted as a beautiful story about the life and maturation of an intelligent young woman, it also pulls no punches when it comes to social injustice. Diamant’s teachings are there, and you have to be ready to absorb them. Don’t let things slip by without noticing, no matter how small they seem. When the observation is made that it was daring for a woman to wear a pair of pants, let that sink in.
By asking her grandmother how she got to be the woman she is today, Addie Baum’s granddaughter open a floodgate. Addie’s wit and wisdom spill off the pages of this novel as she teems with life lessons. One of my favorites was when Addie told her granddaughter never to believe the hype that things were better in the past. She asserts that this just isn’t true. Things are better now, and she’s proof.
I won’t mention what Addie eventually accomplishes in life, because when you reach that point in the novel when it’s revealed, you’ll smile. It’s telling, and profound. It’s also the perfect fit for for Addie Baum.
Now please bear with me while I swoon over the narrator of this audiobook, Linda Lavin. She was marvelous! She breathed life and love into Addie’s character, and you could hear her smiling as she read the story. Lavin added a great deal to this wonderful novel, and I can’t wait to hear her again. Bravo!
4 stars for The Boston Girl.