Monday, May 29, 2017

Jane Healey's The Saturday Evening Girls Club, a saga of young women and social reform in 1900s Boston

The Saturday Evening Girls Club, a real organization in Boston’s North End in the early 1900s, was set up by progressive reformers to provide opportunities for daughters in working-class immigrant families. (Today it’s best known for the beautiful pottery produced there.)

Healey’s winning debut brings readers into the lives of four women in their twenties, two Italian and two Jewish, whose friendship was cemented through this group. All are caught between their parents’ old-world traditions and their own aspirations.

Caprice Russo, whose hat-designing talents are popular with Boston society ladies, is the engaging narrator. She dreams of owning her own millinery shop and, eventually, marrying a man of her choosing—definitely not one of the Sicilian boys her father invites for dinner. Her plans are put on hold when her boss decides to move to New York and close her store.

The friends’ close bond, and the generosity of the club’s patronesses, help them through rough times and difficult decisions. To escape her mother’s fate, Maria starts dating a rich Italian man with questionable morals; Thea considers an arranged marriage; and quiet, scholarly Ada, who hides her university studies from her conservative Jewish father, falls in love with someone unsuitable.

The writing is so smooth that readers may not consciously notice all the cultural details tucked in: the comforting scents of Italian families’ rooftop tomato gardens, the ties and rivalries carried over from Europe, and street festivals that celebrate heritage and faith.

The four women, while fictional, interact with historical characters that their real-life counterparts would have known. Kindly philanthropist Helen Storrow is a strong supporter of the club and its “girls,” while Isabella Stewart Gardner’s elegant home shows off her large art collection and supercilious attitude. Fans of warmhearted sagas should enjoy this, and it’s suitable for YA readers, too.

Jane Healey's The Saturday Evening Girls Club (see on Goodreads) was published by Lake Union in April.  This review first appeared online in May's Historical Novels Review, based on a NetGalley copy.

For background on the Paul Revere Pottery and the group that produced it, see Saturday Evening Girls: A Social and Business Experiment in the History of Pottery at the Arts & Crafts Society website. Many of the ceramics are collectors' items today.  Check out some pictures and the prices they're being sold for on eBay!

6 comments:

  1. Sounds like one I'd really like. Thanks for the review.

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    1. Hope you'll enjoy the book if you get a chance to read it.

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  2. This sounds fascinating. Just a couple of decades earlier than my own historical novel-in-progress set in Cleveland.

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    1. Best of luck with the writing!

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  3. This sounds a most interesting novel!

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    1. I'm from New England and hadn't heard about the Saturday Evening Girls before this novel - and feel like I should have!
      It doesn't focus much on the pottery, but I'm glad to have learned more about their history.

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