Even the title "The Girl Who Got All the Breaks" suggests one of those '30s and '40s movies, where some spunky kid cries, "Okay, everybody, let's put on a show about the publishing industry!" This cheerful, lively novel pits the genteel, high-quality "Caxton Press" against the encroaching demands of the market and commercialism; and its champion, Jessca Hale, against a calculating young woman and the conflicts of work and love.
When the novel begins, Jessica is a senior editor at Caxton, and the friend and lover of its head, Edward Cummings. She is talented and secure in her job, pleased with her sensibly, affectionate relationship with Edward. A painful marriage, divorce and Steven, the big romance who left her, are behind. Then Blake shows up as Jessica's eager, helpful assistant, and in a replay of the "All About Eve" story, goes after both Edward and Jessica's job. Just as Jessica's professional and personal lives are most threatened, Steven reappears, this timevery much in love with her.
As Jessica struggles to plan her life -- where to work, how much to love, how to keep herself intact -- the Caxton Press endures the crises and successes of books that flop and sell, and the constant threat of financial failure. It represents the old school of publishing tasteful and literary, taking books without primary regard for their commercial value. Caxton is "an Hispano-Suiza in an assembly-line business . . . that ran now on hype and sordid secrets of the stars." It is portrayed as a hero, fighting to stay in business and maintain its integrity at the same time.
Rinzler packs in details of the way publishing was and is: the deals made over lunch, the soothing and courting ofwriters, the buying up of smaller houses by larger ones, and the nittygritty of marketing, book-club sales, subsidiary rights, editors meetings, andthe flow of copy through the house. Sometimes these passages jump out as didactic text in the middle of a novel; but the information builds an interesting picture of a business moving from the gentleman's agreement and a love of literature to an eye for large-scale commercial success.
"The Girl Who Got All the Breaks" shows both the publishing business and women in transition. Although thisis not a feminist nove, self-determination is a major theme. The point, however, is quietly made. Jessica, 38, reflects the style of a generation of working women both competent and confident in their jobs, but rarely pushy or tough: her achievement comes from talent and hard work. Although smart and attractive, she nonetheless has "the persisting vulnerability of women who had become successful in part because they had not thought themselves pretty." Pride and self-sufficiency are hard won, helped by the temper of the times. Yet Jessica continues to blame herself for relationships that fail. When Steven leaves here the first time, she thinks, "She might have made him feel love; she had not . . . She believed she could yet make him love her, if only she could be perfect." Even when she is attacked while alone in her country home, she does not want to tell anyone because, "More than anything else, she felt ashamed, as if she herself had failed."
She is, in fact, basically nice -- vulnerable, and human, and likable, the opposite of the stereotype of a hardened, neurotic, successful businesswoman. Although she understands the strength of her intelligence, she comes to believe in her independence slowly. She is the smart woman finishing college two decades ago, affected but not formed by the values of the feminist movement. In her own way, she has trouble balancing the demands of self, work and love.
She is confused by marriage to a man who "would not go to sleep until Jessica had confessed with sufficient emotion her failings as lover, wife, and mother." She is uncertain in her affair with Steven, full of touching, funny anxiety about the mechanics of getting together -- shaving her legs, how best to get undressed -- full, too, of longing, fear and the certain knowledge of being hurt. She confides in friendswho feel the same way women who care about their jobs but confess they still care about their looks; and Rinzler suggests the ambiguity still present when men and women work together "the luncheon invitations . . . from male colleagues . . . never sure until coffee whether they wanted to hire her to take her to bed."
Jessica's humor, energy and style hold the book together. The male characters are sketchy; even the idol Steven is almost a parody, with lines like, " Our wedding rings are touching. . . That's indecently exciting, isn't it?" "Not one, perhaps, for whom to agonize over the cut and color of one's underwear. Blake, too, is a onedimensional figure with no heart and a thirst for success, the "younger generation" without scruples. And the plot zips along with few surprises, hurdling all obstacles and drawing to a smooth and simple close.
In "The Girl Who Got All The Breaks" there is a happy ending. This is an optimistic book, almost old-fashioned, despite its treatment of modern themes -- more like those movies where everything turns out right. But there are times when one wants that too, when one wants to believe that good taste triumphs, and that women and men can find each other and a peaceful spot among the stony foothills of work and love.