Monday, November 19, 2012

Ten Girls To Watch by Charity Shumway

Recently, after having read a string of sad but really excellent books, I remarked to my partner that I felt depressed and gloomy. “Well, look at what you’ve been reading!” was her immediate response. I defended my reading habits by pointing out that reading books about the way the world really is, i.e., reading the truth, sometimes has as a consequence a somber view of the world. I don’t think much of readers who read only to escape the world we actually live in.

Nevertheless, the next time I went to the bookstore, I consciously looked for some light fiction, something intentionally comedic. I picked up a book by Charity Shumway entitled, Ten Girls to Watch, noticing that the book was praised for its honesty and humor. I expected little from the book, but hoped for some laughs. In fact, the more I read into the book, the more interested I became. The plot is a simple one: Dawn West, recently graduated from college with a liberal arts degree, and disappointing her parents by rejecting law school in favor of trying out a writing career in New York, is hired by Charm magazine to find and interview as many as possible of five hundred women who had over a fifty year period been chosen by the magazine as college women to watch. In real life, Charity Shumway was hired by Glamour magazine to track down just that number of women for a fifty year anniversary event of a contest they had run called, Top 10 College Women. Once she had finished the project and the event was held, Shumway found herself still in the thrall of the stories of the many women she had interviewed, and thought she might spend six months writing a novel based on those stories. In fact, the novel was four years in the making, and I find the results not only interesting and heartwarming, but also historically instructive. Women have, indeed, come along way in those fifty years.

The contest was started in 1957, and not surprisingly, was first a contest honoring the best dressed college women in America. In the 60s, the contest became an academic one (or, at least, academics were stressed), and in the 70s and 80s, Viet Nam, environmental issues, and feminism played a greater and greater roll in the lives of the women chosen.

I don’t know just how much the fictionalized account squares with the lived-lives of the women chosen in Glamour’s contest, but there is no doubt that Shumway, herself, became more and more impressed by the women she interviewed, and their stories began to shape her life. Among them are surgeons, test pilots, teachers, professional sports figures, professors, business owners, opera singers, and more. Dawn West, whose biography not surprisingly closely resembles Shumway’s, gets the opportunity to visualize her own life and loves through the prism of all of these remarkable women. While she is wowed by some of the more high profile women who are politicians, talk-show hosts, movers and shakers in the business world, it is often the less known who inspire and teach her the most.

At first, I found myself put off by the title of the book, Ten Girls to Watch; certainly calling these powerful women girls seems to diminish them and their accomplishments. But that is certainly not Shumway’s intention. Instead, at the beginning of the project, she sees herself as a girl, barely out of college, barely able to make ends meet, unpublished, embarking on a risky career, and very hard on herself for what she sees as her failings. Anxious for success, she sees herself as lagging behind. Slowly, as she meets and interviews these women, some in their 60s and 70s, others closer to her age, she comes to see how hard they worked to become who they are—how many years they spent working and training for their careers. She also comes to see that men and romantic relationships were more often hindrances in their lives and struggles to succeed than positive influences, and she begins to see her own dependence on boyfriends and the importance she gives to romantic attachments as blocking her self-realization.

I can’t possibly cover very many of the inspiring stories of the women Dawn interviews, but I want to mention a couple and the effects they have on Dawn. At one point, heartbroken and stressed, she turns (as she often does) to junk food and sloth as an antidote. What a surprise, instead of feeling better, she feels worse. But at about the same time, she interviews a famous opera singer, who surprisingly steers the interview away from opera and her accomplishments and instead begins to talk about care of her body.
Something most people don’t think about is just how physical singing is, and I think that’s what I’m most grateful for on my job. I rely so much on my body that I notice all the tiny differences. If I don’t sleep enough, if I’ve eaten poorly or had a little too much drink the night before, it comes out in my voice. You can hear my sins. The thing is, everyone relies on their bodies; it’s just harder to hear the screeching when your job is writing or taking care of patients or crunching numbers. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. It just means that some people consider it part of their jobs to turn a deaf ear. I don’t have that luxury. I have to take care of myself, and that’s been a gift.
Another woman, one of the ten to watch in 1957, has recently retired from forty years of teaching first grade. Dawn asks why she chose to remain a teacher all those years when she had wanted at first to be a writer. She replies that she didn’t want it enough, but more importantly, that the desire to teach was paramount. “I suppose I just never got over the pleasure of watching a child learn to read. You’re watching the world open. It’s a miracle every single time.” Quite obviously, this woman does not see herself as settling for less than she should have, but rather as developing her real talents and following her deepest desires.

Although many of the women she interviews are still arrestingly beautiful, hardly any want to talk about beauty or fashion. It is their work that motivates and thrills them. One woman who was one of the first test pilots for the air force relates the sexism within the military that eventually drove her out, but insists that she finds her career as a professor of astrophysics much more rewarding. Many have children, many don’t, but all seem to agree that neither romantic partners nor children are enough.

I doubt that either Shumway, or her fictional character Dawn, expected at the outset of the project to learn so much from the experience. It is Shumway’s ability, via her character Dawn West, to laugh at herself and the ways in which she avoids existential questions by supposing a love-relationship will answer them all that makes this book both humorous and insightful.

I’m not claiming that this is great writing or a great book, but it is certainly one that I found interesting and inspiring, and the humor helped. I didn’t expect to review it, but decided finally that I couldn’t put it aside without recommending it to others.

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