REVIEW: The Trouble with You by Ellen Feldman

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In an exuberant post WWII New York City, a young woman is forced to reinvent her life and choose between the safe and the ethical, and the men who represent each…

Set in New York City in the heady aftermath of World War II when the men were coming home, the women were exhaling in relief, and everyone was having babies, The Trouble With You is the story of a young woman whose rosy future is upended in a single instant. Raised never to step out of bounds, educated in one of the Sister Seven Colleges for a career as a wife and mother, torn between her cousin Mimi who is determined to keep her a “nice girl”—the kind that marries a doctor—and her aunt Rose who has a rebellious past of her own, Fanny struggles to raise her young daughter and forge a new life by sheer will and pluck. When she gets a job as a secretary to the “queen” of radio serials—never to be referred to as soaps—she discovers she likes working, and through her friendship with an actress who stars in the series and a man who writes them, comes face to face with the blacklist which is destroying careers and wrecking lives. Ultimately, Fanny must decide between playing it safe or doing what she knows is right in this vivid evocation of a world that seems at once light years away and strangely immediate.

CW – antisemitism, death of a character, misogyny

Dear Ms. Feldman,

When I read the blurb for this book, I will admit that I hoped it would be similar to “Lessons in Chemistry,” as I seem to have recently acquired a liking for 1950s era books in which women find their ovaries and stand up to discrimination. Yay, it is. It is also a take-down of the HUAC that upended the lives of people across the US and not just in the entertainment industry. Fanny never sets out to “stick it to the Man” yet ends up doing just that.

Since I knew that Fanny would be widowed, I spent the first chapter or two on edge as we got to see Fanny, Max and their daughter Chloe happy at a family wedding, then there was a bit about Fanny’s family dynamics (important for Aunt Rose who I loved), Fanny and Max’s short marriage before he ships out for Europe (with Fanny hoping that the red crosses on the medical tents would keep Max safe), and then the little bit of time they’d have after 1945. This is important because once Max dies and Fanny is broken, these scenes show why she mourns Max so much. As she takes her widowed cousin Mimi’s place as the “Poor” Widow of the family, Fanny finally realizes that she can’t live off Max’s life insurance payout forever. Canny Aunt Rose sees an opportunity and, as she fits a new suit for a woman who runs “radio serials,” she pushes Fanny’s skills.

Soon Fanny is a private secretary and learning all about how soap operas (a term never to be used at work) are produced, meeting the voice talent, and being taken aback by a handsome man who is equally talented and cheeky. He also knows Aunt Rose and pulls back the curtain on a relationship in that woman’s life of which Fanny had no knowledge. But Charlie Berlin is not the kind of man Fanny is used to nor does she want or expect anything from him. The polio scares faced by America each summer bring another man into Fanny’s life – a nice pediatrician who went to med school with Max.

When Charlie pushes his desire to needle those working to muzzle commies too far and a talented actress’ past work for causes that aren’t considered “nice” (she picketed “Birth of a Nation” and raised money for the NAACP) gets her blacklisted, Fanny sees how it tears their lives apart. Aunt Rose won’t let Fanny ignore other people who’ve been hurt either. Soon Fanny realizes that she’s going to have to choose. Does she want safe but constricting or a chance to do work that invigorates her alongside a man who believes in her.

The first part of the novel swept me along. I inhaled 130 pages and kept reading until I could barely hold my head up. The book was practically reading itself and I was along for the ride. Fanny’s life wasn’t all charming as she had to raise Chloe without a husband during the war, and all too soon she was a widow in a world that pities widows and doesn’t expect women to work. Somehow the work she eventually finds is something she comes to enjoy. Cousin Mimi wants another man to take care of her and chides Fanny for not latching onto a way back into being a woman who lunches but Fanny enjoys using her mind and, before long, her talent and what she learned in Barnard.

But the vague whispers of people being called before committees to account for their real or supposed communist beliefs becomes real as Fanny sees actors written out of soaps and writers kicked out of jobs. When Charlie comes to her with a proposal, Fanny has to decide what is more important – helping someone who has selflessly helped others or staying on her high horse of morals. That decision in turn makes her rethink what kind of relationship she’ll choose. She loved and lost once then crawled out of the heartbreak to make a life for herself and her daughter. Fanny knows it isn’t just herself who will be affected by the life choice she makes but Chloe, too.

I had a pretty good idea which way Fanny would go. I like that both men were actually good people but just with different views of life and that did make me a little annoyed at how wishy-washy Fanny got as she tried to choose. I could see her being torn for a while but after that, go or get off the pot Fanny. The historical details and setting are well done. The relationship between Fanny and Chloe is realistic but sweet, too. Aunt Rose is a pistol. It didn’t quite live up to what I hoped for but it came pretty darn close. B

~Jayne

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Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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